D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Core Races, Part 2

So, four days later, I’m back at this. My apologies for the delay – my workload from school picked up, my stress level went through the roof, and when I wasn’t killing myself working with Flash (one of my courses is on animation) I was getting ready for my trip. However, found out yesterday that my departure’s been delayed, which means I’ve got nothing to do today. So, at long last, I’m diving back into the Dark Sun races post I left woefully incomplete.

So no mucking about, let’s get to this thing.

Half-elves

A pair of 4th Edition half-elves.
A pair of 4th Edition half-elves.

The half-elf has undergone a pretty significant makeover in the transition from 3rd to 4th Edition. For three editions now, half-elves have been the bastard offspring of two different races – and like most bastard children in the medieval era, polite company wanted nothing to do with them.

In 4th Edition, however, they’ve undergone a significant shift – from a scorned half-breed to a beloved example of the best that both races have to offer. They’re open-minded and insightful, confidant and charming – making them natural leaders and diplomats. The end result is a pretty cool race that, thematically, doesn’t really have a place on Athas.

Half-elves in Dark Sun, by way of comparison, are even more loathed than they were in standard Dungeons & Dragons. Some tribes of elves are known to not only kill half-breeds on sight, but exile elven women who give birth to them – effectively damning mother and child to die under the merciless Athasian sun. Dark Sun half-elves were also very strange, with most of their racial abilities coming from their fierce independent streak. I wouldn’t be surprised if the half-elf’s +2 to Diplomacy checks gets swapped with Nature, along with a similar change to their Group Diplomacy ability (which normally gives nearby allies +1 to Diplomacy checks), but otherwise I’m not sure there’ll be many mechanical changes.

A half-elf of Athas in her natural habitat - solitude.
A half-elf of Athas in her natural habitat - solitude.

The other two big racial benefits received by the Dark Sun half-elf were A) the half-elf could play as any character class (which is now true of every race and thus isn’t really a benefit) and B) the half-elf could “befriend” a pet, king of like the 3rd Edition Ranger’s animal companions. Of course, as 4th Edition has eliminated the whole concept of “allies as class features” (no animal companions for rangers or druids, no warhorse for paladins) that feature is almost certainly going to be dropped.

Given the fact that pretty much every benefit the Dark Sun half-elf received doesn’t work under the new edition, I have to assume that the half-elf will make the transition pretty much as-is, with a few possible minor changes (like Diplomacy to Nature) and a redefinition of the race’s flavor component.

A 4th Edition halfling, lunging with a pair of blades.
A 4th Edition halfling, lunging with a pair of blades.

Halflings

If Bilbo Baggins and Hannibal Lecter had children, the resultant offspring would be the halflings of Athas.

Dark Sun’s halflings were very much outsiders, even more so than the half-elves. They came from a region called the Forest Ridge – a tropical jungle which was itself on the far side of the Ringing Mountains, isolated from the rest of Athas. The halflings were feral and dangerous, considered any living thing that wasn’t a halfling a potential source of food, and had a very internal-focused culture that made it very difficult for outsiders to even fully communicate.

A feral Athasian halfling.
A feral Athasian halfling.

I really only see one problem with the halflings of Athas vs. the halflings of 4th Edition. Halflings are small, and halflings are fast. Every D&D player knows that halflings are small, and halflings are fast. The 4th Edition halfling is almost completely built around being small and fast (bonuses to Dexterity, Acrobatics & Thievery checks, and two other traits that make enemies more likely to miss them). However, the Athasian halfling was also wise and a part of an ancient culture that had a special union with nature. The 4th Edition halfling doesn’t really suggest that. I don’t know that this concept necessitates a mechanical change to the race – but I don’t know that it doesn’t either.

The end result? I figure a 50/50 chance that halflings will see significant mechanical changes for their Dark Sun incarnation. I just find this one to be too close to call, and I can’t find any official commentary on halflings in DS4e.

Humans

A 4th Edition human.
A 4th Edition human.

For as long as I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons, humankind has been the benchmark against which all other player races have been measured. In every edition, humans have always been cited as being incredibly versatile and adaptable.

In 2nd Edition (and the original Dark Sun), this meant that humans were the only race capable of playing as any character class, and reach maximum level. In 3rd Edition, it meant that instead of getting a lot of specific racial features, humans got a free skill and a free feat – on top of what every character already got. 4th Edition humans continue to follow in the mold of 3rd Edition: +2 to one ability score, one extra at-will class power, one bonus feat, one bonus skill, and +1 to all defenses. Very well-rounded, very open to customization.

Frankly, there’s no need to change anything for Dark Sun. Make sure all the humans are scowling in the concept art, give them all a tan, and call it a day.

An Athasian human.
An Athasian human.

As an aside – and completely off-topic – ever since the shift from 2nd to 3rd Edition I’ve seen online comments stating that the whole “humans tend to be the dominant race” concept is flawed, and should be reworked. Apparently the logic goes that the dominance of humans was based on their ability to progress in more character classes, and farther in those classes, than any other race. Therefore when dwarves (who had no arcane magic-users) came into conflict with humans, their wizards smacked them down – when elves came into conflict with humans, their higher-level clerics and fighters provided the needed edge, etc. etc.

That certainly contributed to their dominance, I’m sure, but is really a secondary factor. The primary factor? Birth rates. You see, virtually every race in Dungeons & Dragons is longer-lived than humans. Yet – and I’m speaking as a person who has owned virtually every racial sourcebook (Complete Book of Dwarves, Complete Book of Elves, etc.) – there’s never really any mention of the dwarven or elven nuclear family being noticeably larger than that of humans. Which suggests that humans? Way outnumber the other races. Eleves take an entire century to hit physical maturity – meaning four or five generations of humans will be born, grow up, have children of their own, and die before a single elven generation is ready to perpetuate the species.

Anyways, that really has nothing to do with anything, just a minor rant I’ve been holding inside for some time.

Tieflings

A pair of tieflings, a new race in 4th Edition - and possible spawn of the Pristine Tower.
A pair of tieflings, a new race in 4th Edition - and possible spawn of the Pristine Tower.

Finally, we reach the third race that is brand-new to 4th Edition, and thus has no established place in Dark Sun. Dungeons & Dragons veterans will recognize tieflings as being humans with a minor trace of of infernal (read that: demonic) blood. In 4th Edition, however, they’re a race unto themselves – the descendants of a now-fallen empire who struck foul bargains with infernal creatures. So, you know, still got the demon-taint, just a different flavoring of it.

Dark Sun doesn’t have any gods to speak of, and in the absence of any sort of divine presence angels and demons seem to stick out like a sore thumb. I for one don’t really think the Judeo-Christian feel of Dungeons & Dragons’  Angel/Demon/Devil concept really works with Athas. That might just be my personal opinion, but I don’t actually recall any references to them in any of the old Dark Sun material – which itself says something (again, in my opinion).

However, Chris Flipse (one of the administrators over at athas.org) made a rather brilliant comment during his interview with the Dragonlance Canticle (the interview is in two parts, and I don’t recall which part the comment is in) – brilliant enough that I wish I’d thought of it! Basically, he mentioned a structure called the Pristine Tower – an ancient spire of white rock that was once the site of a great investment of power and energy. These days, anyone who is injured near it – even so much as a scratch – turns into a hideous, mutated creature. So that’s certainly one option for the tiefling’s backstory.

Mechanically, the tieflings are fine. Clever, confidant, deceptive and bloodthirsty – they’re pretty much a natural fit for Dark Sun, and I think they’ll make a really solid addition.

The Rest

Okay, so there’s the eight player races introduced in the PHB1. However, between the PHB2 & PHB3 nine (or ten, depending on how you count) additional races have been introduced: deva, githzerai, gnomes, goliaths, half-orcs, minotaurs, shardminds, shifters (two varieties), and wilden. Not a single one of them has an established place on Dark Sun! What about them?

At the Dark Sun panel at the D&D Experience, Robert Schwalb explained the official policy on Gnomes – basically they decided not to bother talking about non PHB1 races that don’t have a place already defined for them in Dark Sun, leaving it up to individual Dungeon Masters whether or not to incorporate them into their campaigns. In the future, I may blog about the PHB2/PHB3 races and my thoughts on incorporating them into a Dark Sun campaign – but that will, at the very least, be after DS4e is out and I’ve got my hands on a copy.

Until then, I won’t be discussing the “extra” races – with one exception you’ll be hearing about soon. More on that next time.

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Administrative

Vacation Notice

In one sense, the timing could be better. But, to be completely honest, the timing couldn’t be better.

I’ve not mentioned it here before, but I live in a remote town called Inuvik which is located in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Inuvik is inside the Arctic Circle. Which means, among other things, the sun hasn’t actually gone down for about three weeks now.

Perpetual sunlight may protect you from vampires, but is sure fucks up your head.

On top of that I am going back to school, taking a full load of online college courses through the British Columbia Institute of Technology. In between the sun never going down and me working myself ragged, I need to get the fuck out of town. I’m stressed, exhausted, and despite living in Canada have not tasted Tim Horton’s coffee since September. This situation is unacceptable.

My brain-dead, stressed-out state is why the second part of my Dark Sun races post is taking its sweet time in getting done. I’ve sat down to write it twice now – both times with a brain too fried to get it done. I’m hoping to try again tomorrow with better results.

Anyways, the real point of the post is this: the road’s are now open, which means I’m hopping in the SUV and barreling down the Dempster Highway, full speed to Whitehorse. It’s not a big city, but at least it’s a proper city. One where I can get a Big Mac, a Double-Double, and a new set of headphones for my iPod. I’ll be gone a week, give or take.

Stopping updates for a week (and really two, if I count my somewhat lackluster showing this week) isn’t the best thing for a burgeoning blog, but it can’t be helped. If I don’t get on the road, my brain will go poof. If there’s good WiFi in the hotel, and my head is clear enough to write, you’ll hear from me on the road. Otherwise, you’ll hear from me when I get back.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4E – Core Races, Part 1

So I’ve been blogging for six days now, and I’ve learned something. I have a lot more to say about shit than I originally realized. With that in mind, I’m going to to be breaking some of these posts up – today, for example, I’m going to be discussing the “core” D&D races (those that can already be found in the Player’s Handbook I, II or III) and their Athasian counterparts. I’ll be dealing with Dark Sun-specific races next time.

Oh, and for the sake of clarity, let me toss out some terminology right off the bat: when I refer to something as being from 2e, I mean ordinary 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. DS means the original Dark Sun (which was a 2nd Edition product, but changed some rules). 4e means 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and DS4e refers to the new Dark Sun book being released in August 2010. PHB1/PHB2/PHB3 refers to the Player’s Handbook 1, 2 or 3, respectively.

The Dragonborn, a 4th Edition player race.
The Dragonborn, a 4th Edition player race.

Unfortunately, I don’t happen to have a copy of the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, so my references to 2e races are from memory. If I flub something, feel free to correct me.

Dragonborn

Rich Baker spoke at a panel about Dark Sun in January, and one of the things he said was that he felt it important to create a place for all of the races presented in the PHB1. That’s really no big deal and his logic is pretty sound – effectively, Baker said that DS4e will hopefully be introducing Dark Sun to a lot of new D&D players, ones who will be expecting access to the options presented in the corest of core rulebooks. And, realistically, it’s no big deal – of the eight races presented in the PHB1, five of them are represented in the original DS boxed set. The Dragonborn are one of the three who aren’t, but long-time Dark Sun fans know there’s a pretty easy fix. They’re called the Dray.

The Dray are a dragon-like race introduced in the City by the Silt Sea boxed set – a Dark Sun product published in 1994. The dray are, in most ways, dragonborn with a different backstory. They’re not exactly identical, mechanically – Dragonborn really shine as melee fighters, while the Dray were more suited to magic- and psionic-use. But, honestly, you don’t need to make many changes. I might replace the dragonborn’s breath weapon with some natural armor and fire resistance, and drop the bonus to History checks, but otherwise I think the dragonborn is pretty much good to go.

The Dray, a Dark Sun player race.
The Dray, a Dark Sun player race.

I’m a little less thrilled about what’s being done to the race in-game. Baker’s blog entry on the dray includes this particular quote:

The dragonborn (or dray) are a race of sorcerous merchants, hired spellcasters, pragmatic mercenaries, and maybe even slavers. They’re not especially numerous, so you don’t see a lot of them around. Their clans are like small, insular merchant houses, and they might serve as deal-brokers and moneylenders: disliked in many places, but regarded as very useful to have around.

I decided early on I was going to try to avoid dropping setting spoilers as much as possible, so I won’t go into how that concept doesn’t really jibe with the original Dray. At the same time, the original backstory/concept of the Dray doesn’t really work, if you want them to be a viable player race in any of the seven cities (or wherever on Athas your campaign is set). So, I don’t like it, but I understand it. And, realistically? If, upon reading the DS4e entry on Dray, I really don’t like it? I’m the DM – I can change it.

A pair of 4th Edition dwarves.
A pair of 4th Edition dwarves.

Dwarves

I honestly thought that Athasian dwarves were better, flat-out better than their standard 2e counterparts. But that was based on a ten-year old perception, rather than a legitimate comparison. I just read the entry for dwarves in the original DS material, and now I really don’t know.

In 2e, dwarves got a +2 to Constitution and a -2 to Charisma. Athasian dwarves got all that and an additional +1 to Strength and -1 to Dexterity. Both versions had a pretty potent bonus to shrugging off the effects of poison or magic. 2e dwarves got some bonuses when fighting larger opponents, and had the innate ability to determine things about subterranean construction (is this passage sloping downward, how far underground are we, etc.). Athasian dwarves lost both those abilities, instead getting a focus – basically a sort of semi-quest they made their own personal mission, getting all sorts of bonuses while pursuing. So a dwarf escorting a caravan across the desert makes protecting the caravan his focus – boom, he’s a better caravan guard than before.

An Athasian dwarf.
An Athasian dwarf.

Realistically, dwarves don’t need to change much either. I might drop their +2 bonus to the Dungeoneering skill, and increase their bonus to the Endurance skill to +4 (from +2) and maybe change the weapons they get automatic proficiency with (I can’t recall if hammers get a lot of use on Athas), but that’s it. My guess is that the focus mechanics will be dropped from the race itself, though I wouldn’t be surprised if some focus-themed dwarf feats made the cut. Otherwise, I think these fellows are ready for the desert sands.

Eladrin

Eladrin weren’t a part of Dark Sun before, but I don’t anticipate much difficulty incorporating them. Graceful and wise keepers of arcane mysteries, eladrin are technically fey creatures – a rung or two up the ladder from elves. Although nothing has been said regarding their place in DS4e, I expect they’ll likely be a part of the whole nomadic tribal culture alongside the elves.

The Eladrin are a new player race, first introduced in 4th Edition.
The Eladrin are a new player race, first introduced in 4th Edition.

For most of Dungeons & Dragons, the race of elves represented two distinct stereotypes – the wise keeper of ancient, arcane lore (lets call them Galadrials) and the bow-wielding warriors of the forest (who we’ll call the Legolai). Whereas this used to be represented with the various elven “subraces,” in 4th Edition they’ve divided them into two distinct races. The eladrin are the wise, arcane fey (Galadrials).

I don’t see any real problems, mechanically, with the eladrin being put on Athas as-is. Much like the Dragonborn, I’d drop the eladrin’s bonus to History checks: Athas is a world where literacy is punishable by death and where the sorcerer-kings have worked very hard to destroy all records of the past. Given that, I’m pretty much in favor of dropping History bonuses for any race that has them. I can see some pretty cool visuals for the Eladrin’s Fey Step power (which lets them teleport up to 25 feet, once per encounter) – an Eladrin warrior bursting apart into a whirling cloud of sand, only to explode up from the ground behind a foe. That kind of stuff.

A 4th Edition elf, longbow in hand.
A 4th Edition elf, longbow in hand.

Elves

When I was listing off all the things that made me love Dark Sun, I named their unique take on racial stereotypes as one of them – specifically quoting the description of Athasian elves. A nomadic, tribal people, the elves consider all outsiders – humans, dwarves, even elves from a different tribe – to be an enemy. Depending on the tribe, elves make their way through life as either herders, traders or raiders. A tribe of elven merchants will appear in one city, engaging in trade until they are unwelcome and then slipping back into the desert. Elven markets have a notoriously unsavory reputation as a place toget anything – even things that are stolen or otherwise illegal. Some cities even have semi-permanent elven ghettos.

In some ways the half-feral, untrusted and untrusting elves of Athas are a fusion of two medieval stereotypes – that of the nomadic, thieving gypsy combined with the knowledgeable but different (and thus shunned) Jew.

An Athasian elf, sprinting across the dunes.
An Athasian elf, sprinting across the dunes.

Mechanically speaking, elves are pretty much ready to go. I’d swap their +2 to Perception checks with Stealth, and similarly modify their Group Awareness ability (which normally gives nearby non-elf allies +1 to Perception checks). Elves already have a speed of 7 (at least 1 more square than any other player race) and Wild Step (permitting them to ignore difficult terrain in certain circumstances), which is appropriate as being able to move fast is integral to the Athasian elven concept. I might even drop the Group Awareness ability instead of modifying it, and up their speed to 8 just to emphasize that. Not sure how that’d pan out, is just an idle thought.

Interlude

Okay, so of the eight PHB1 races, I’ve gone through half of them and to be honest I’m kind of surprised – I was operating on a memory of the Dark Sun races being noticeably more powerful than their 2e counterparts, but they really don’t seem to be. At least not yet – though, in retrospect, the two most broken-powerful races weren’t Athasian conversions but Dark Sun-specific races. Also, my lack of a 2e PHB isn’t making the comparison easier, though I’m getting lots of reminders because the Dark Sun material is pretty helpful in listing what normal dwarves (or whatever) don’t have compared to what ordinary dwarves have.

Now, I know I just made a post saying I wasn’t going to lock myself into having to post this-or-that by saying “next time I’m doing X.” But, I think the exception to that rule is whenever I make a post that says “Part 1” or whatever. If I split it into pieces, I’ll probably do them one after the other.

So, tomorrow I’ll be covering the final four PHB1 races – half-elves, halflings, humans, and tieflings.

Administrative

Administrivia

So, this isn’t the post about the Dark Sun races. Still planning on getting to that later today. A couple of more administrative, “blogging about this blog” kind of things I wanted to toss out there.

First of all, to everyone following this blog (both of you), you might notice the blogroll on the right has been expanded. Stuff like that’s going to happen intermittently – I’m also planning on, eventually, getting some basic static pages (About this Blog, About the Author, Contact Me, etc.) cranked out when I get the time and inclination to do so. But this time, it’s the links list – which has gone from two to seven. So I figured I should introduce my new guests:

I’m primarily aware of Critical Hits as a D&D4E podcast that I haven’t listened to yet, but am going to ASAP. Unfortunately my monthly bandwidth allotment is throttled up here in the Northwest Territories, so I have to keep an eye on how much stuff I download monthly. I’ve only given their stuff a cursory glance, but I’m planning on digging deep from here on out.

Glen Thoughts was already on the links list, but I never mentioned it. However, if you’re reading this blog at the current time, my pageview statistics suggest a 50/50 chance that you either are Glen, or are my ex-girlfriend (and thus you know Glen). So, you know, not going to spend a huge amount of time on this one. Glen, celebrated in my very first post Glen, has a blog. It’s called Glen Thoughts. It’s mostly about nerd culture and living in China, though currently it’s very much focused on the NHL.

I only became aware of Mike’s D&D Blog today, meaning like Critical Hits, I haven’t had a chance to read that deeply yet. However, my first awareness of Mike’s writing came from his informing me of novelty soaps shaped like d20’s and Han Solo frozen in carbonite. So, you know, I’m buying Mike a beer if I ever meet him. Which is unlikely. But, dude. Han Solo soap. Dude.

Continuing the trend of “I haven’t read it but I want to,” allow me to introduce the RPG Blog II. I’m not even sure of the operator’s name, as I can’t find an “About the Blog/Author” page, but the topics raised are interesting. Anyone who knows Brian the Nerd knows I’m into the theory behind roleplaying games, as much as mechanics or the games themselves. So to see a blog promoting discussion on a wide-range of interesting topics relevant to the hobby is something I can absolutely get behind.

And finally there’s Eric Burns’ blog, Websnark. To steal another man’s phrase, I know from Websnark (stolen from Websnark, who stole it from Sorkin). Sadly enough, these days Websnark’s pretty much a dead blog. But I link to it for three reasons. Firstly, Websnark was the first blog I ever subscribed to and in many ways is responsible for my interest in blogging in general. Secondly, Eric Burns’ writing style is absolutely a significant influence on my own writing (I’d probably put him in the top three, but saying that for certain would require more in-depth analysis than I have time for this morning). Thirdly, posting about Eric Burns gives me an excuse to email him to tell him there’s a blog post up about him (something I feel is appropriately polite to do when writing about anyone), which will also provide me with an opportunity to thank him for his years of writing and that I very much regret not ever having gotten involved in the discussion community over there while it was still going on.

You’ll notice that almost all the blogs I mentioned, other than Websnark and Glen Thoughts, have similar description – “looks good, but I don’t know for sure.” One of the things I decided I wanted to do, when I started this blog, was get more involved in the blogosphere. Actually take part in commentary. Read more blogs. Develop relationships with other writers. I realized this morning that that isn’t just going to magically happen on its own. So I hunted up some gaming blogs with Google, and these ones stuck out. I also became aware of the RPG Bloggers Network, so I don’t think I’ll have trouble finding more blogs when I’m caught up on these guys.

Oh, one last administrative note: I’m probably going to cut down on the “next time I’m going to cover X” previews at the end of my posts. Doing that sort of obligates me to write about something specific, which I may not want to write about when I actually sit down later on. And, at least in my case, the best way to ensure I don’t stop keeping up with this blog is to keep my options as wide open as possible.

Nerdstalgia

Game Philosophy

In early 2000, I found myself going to a coffee shop three or four times a week, for a couple of hours at a time. The Right Blend was its name (I think), and it was the closest coffee shop to J&B Books – the only store in town that carried D&D books (I grew up in a small town). The end result was that The Right Blend had become sort of a regular stomping ground for a lot of local roleplayers.

We didn’t really socialize outside of the shop. What we did do was talk about D&D. Game ideas. Plot ideas. A new monster someone had created for their campaign, that kind of stuff. I was probably the youngest one in that little club by a good decade,and the next youngest guy was probably another decade down the ladder. We were dealing with guys who had played 1st Edition, who’d been at it 20+ years, who considered themselves the keepers and scholars of roleplaying wisdom.

Then, just before summer, 3rd Edition hit the shelves. Which meant I had a ringside seat for some of the most vitriolic “get off my lawn” fist-shaking I’ve ever seen. Because most of these guys hated 3rd Edition.

For a long time I thought it was because they were old, stubborn, didn’t get it, were too stupid to see how 3rd Edition was simply a better game than 2nd Edition had been. In fact, I still sort of thought that right up until today, when I started thinking about the subject of this post – because this post isn’t about old gamers hating new games. It’s about the philosophical difference between 2nd Edition (under which the original Dark Sun came out) and 4th Edition (which the new Dark Sun will be coming out under in August). And that change in overall philosophy began with the release of 3rd Edition.

3rd Edition truly made the idea of game balance an integral part of every facet of Dungeons & Dragons. It was a far cry from perfectly balanced – 4th Edition is a much, much more balanced game than 3rd could have ever hoped to be (too balanced, in some people’s opinion – not a position I subscribe to, but there it is). The notion of game balance is pretty straightforward – effectively the argument is that, all other factors being equal, two characters should be (more or less) equal. A Fighter shouldn’t be better than a Ranger, who shouldn’t be better than a Rogue. A 5th-level monster should be adequately challenging to a 5th-level character. An Elf should not be better than a Dwarf, nor a Dwarf better than an Elf.

2nd Edition didn’t even pay lip service to the notion of game balance. A 1st-level Fighter would skewer a 1st-level Wizard every damn time. But a 20th-level Wizard would fricassee a dozen 20th-level Fighters in their armor without breaking a sweat. In my last post, I mentioned how (in Fangorn Forest) Gandalf single-handedly overcame Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas at the same time. That is what 2nd Edition was trying to replicate – powerful wizards were more powerful than powerful warriors. Paper (i.e. a spellbook) really does beat rock, in this case.

And that is the great crime of 3rd Edition – not that they “nerfed” wizards, or got rid of Thac0, or made Armor Class go up. 3rd Edition evoked such hatred not because it threw away some of the core mechanics, but some of the core assumptions of Dungeons & Dragons. A 1st-level fighter vs. a 1st-level Wizard? Draw. A 5th-level Fighter vs. a 5th-level Wizard? Draw. 10th-level? Draw. 20th? Draw. Are those stats true, derived from careful analysis? No, certainly not – game balance is a tricky bitch. But those results are now the goal whereas they weren’t before. And that changes everything across the board.

In many ways 3rd Edition could be named as a transitory edition, the stepping stone between 2nd and 4th. Because while 3rd Edition did make significant changes, it was also bogged down by a lot of dead weight and “sacred cows” the designers felt like they had to include. Yes, 3rd Edition did shift the focus onto game balance, eliminate race/class restrictions and level limits, and overhaul of the proficiency system. But they retained the ridiculously cumbersome and mostly pointless alignment system (now pretty much gone in 4e) and clung to awkward but traditional game mechanics like the fire-and-forget spell system (gone in 4e).

And that’s what I admire about 4th Edition – the creators weren’t afraid to gut the whole thing and build it from scratch. Yes, there’s still Armor Class – but the entire attack/defense mechanic is simpler and better. Savings throws are completely different. Hell, bards serve a fucking purpose now. It’s a different game, and when you first read it your head spins – but once you calm down, you realize that while it isn’t the same game it is a better game, in almost every way.

Of course, that has some pretty significant implications for DS4E – which bought into the 2nd Edition conceit of “balance schmalance” hook, link and sinker. Dark Sun characters, races and monsters were just tougher than their non-Dark Sun equivalents. Off the top of my head, here’s a list of things Dark Sun characters got that non-DS character’s didn’t:

  • Their ability scores (Strength, Wisdom, etc.) were rated from 5-20, instead of the normal 3-18 scale.
  • They got a psychic “wild talent” above their normal abilities and powers
  • The Dark Sun versions of races were pretty much all superior to their non-DS equivalents
  • Dark Sun characters started at 3rd level, instead of 1st level, because they were just that damn good

Make no mistake about it – there is going to be plenty for you to hate in DS4E, if you’re the sort of person inclined to hate it. When the original Dark Sun material comes into conflict with the game’s need to keep all individual elements in balance with one another? The developers aren’t going to trash game balance – they’re going to change shit about the setting. I for one am fine with that. Dark Sun, as it was originally, was a 2nd Edition product – DS4E will be a 4th Edition product. They won’t be the same – because you can’t drop 2nd Edition philosophy into 4th Edition rules, and expect it to work. It won’t.

I’m not saying that DS4E will be good. It’s entirely possible that the developers of DS4E will fuck this up – I hope they won’t, I don’t think they will, but they might. One of the two developers of DS4E, Rich Baker, worked on the original Dark Sun (products he designed include the adventures Dragon’s Crown & Merchant House of Amketch, The Will and the Way, and Valley of Dust and Fire), and having listened to him speak about the goals of DS4E on a couple of podcasts, I believe he’s going to preserve the feel of Dark Sun – even if some of the details aren’t the same.

Next time I’ll start, finally!, digging into the guts of DS4E with a discussion of races. See you then.

Dark Sun, Nerdstalgia

Athas Revealed or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dragon

I thought this would be much, much easier to write. I was going to take the time to really dig my teeth into the classic Dark Sun that I played when I was in high school – what it was, why I loved it. I mean I can list off a dozen things about it that were just amazing off the top of my head without break a sweat – surely it’s not so big a deal to talk about those things in a little detail?

Sadira, in a Tyrian alleyway, by Brom.
Sadira, in a Tyrian alleyway, by Brom.

What did I like about Dark Sun? What didn’t I like about Dark Sun is the more appropriate question.

It’s like losing my virginity. I liked it – quite a bit. When it comes to the first time I had sex, it was good (for me at least), no doubt about that. But if you were to ask me to provide a detailed review of the five best parts of the experience, I’d be lost. Like I am now.

So all I can say is that I’m going to try. I’ll do my best. I’ve started and scrapped this post twice now, so hopefully this time it comes together. I’m just going to name the things that really stick out for me, and talk about them a bit.

Brom

An Athasian gladiator, by Brom.
An Athasian gladiator, by Brom.

The artwork of Brom is amazing. Incredibly visceral and potent, imagery that just makes your imagination POP! I’ve liberally peppered a couple of my favorite Brom Dark Sun pieces through this post, the guy is amazing. And he was a part of Dark Sun from the beginning. In many ways, his art guided and shaped the creative direction of the project. Before Troy Denning wrote the Prism Pentad, there was the work of Brom – who made Dark Sun, visually, the most unique setting TSR ever put out. I mean, yeah, Aragorn son of Arathorn looks cool in his dark cloak or his gleaming breastplate – but look at that gladiatrix on the right. Look at that weapon she’s holding – is she going to hit me with it, or penetrate me with it? I don’t know – I don’t want to know. Look at the artwork, go to his website. Middle-Earth, this place is not.

Racial Stereotypes

One of the things that struck me, immediately, about Dark Sun was how they had decided to keep the traditional fantasy races while simultaneously throwing everything you thought you knew about them out the window. The quote below is from the original Dark Sun book – see if you can guess who they’re talking about. (“Athas” is the name of the planet, FYI).

The Dragon of Athas, by Brom.
The Dragon of Athas, by Brom.

“The dunes and steppes of Athas are home to thousands of tribes of nomadic _____. While each tribe is very different culturally, the _____within them remain a race of long-limbed sprinters given to theft, raiding, and warfare.”

A nomadic, tribal people given to theft, raiding and warfare? Sounds like orcs – but actually a description of elves. Dwarves are more recognizable, but still different. I’m not even going to go into halflings today. Gnomes don’t even exist on Athas (maybe some other time I’ll tell the story of why Jeff Grubb is to blame for the genocide of Athasian gnomes).

The point is that Dark Sun wasn’t afraid to change things up, experiment, try something genuinely different. By way of comparison, let’s look at the other D&D settings from the time period. Greyhawk: the original D&D setting, very clearly inspired by Middle-Earth and Tolkien’s tropes. Forgotten Realms: same deal, just bigger. Ravenloft? Some cool gothic horror elements, but applied to the same medieval European paradigm. Hell, even Spelljammer (which was a cool, wonky setting) can basically be summed up as “Middle Earth with spaceships”. The only other setting to get really out there was Planescape, and it didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as warp and exaggerate it to amazing proportions. I might as well come clean right now, the word unique is probably going to keep cropping up.

The Price of Power

Short summary: magic fucks the world up. Basically, the whole concept of “magic” is that you’re drawing on some sort of power or energy that exists outside yourself. Only, on Athas, that source isn’t some omnipresent “Weave” or intellectual concept – you’re siphoning the life energy out of plants to power your spells. Which can, you know, kill them. Did I mention that Athas is a harsh desert world, mostly barren and lifeless? I wonder how that happened.

Magic-users that just suck up energy, killing wildlife for the power it brings them, are called defilers. The ones who draw their power more slowly, thus not killing everything around them are called preservers. And the entire, dying world stands as evidence of the fact that defiling magic is a short-sighted, selfish path to power at the expense of everyone and everything around you.

Yes, I see the global warming metaphor. Not sure that’s what they were going for, but whatever. In that case I guess psionics (which I discuss below) are…biofuels? Solar power? The symbolism may be getting away from me here.

A sorcereress of Athas, by Brom.
A sorcereress of Athas, by Brom.

Magic tends to get taken for granted in fantasy. I’m sure you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies – think of when the Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli confront “the White Wizard” (Gandalf, not Saruman) in Fangorn Forest. Gandalf blinds them with a blast of brilliant light, deflects Legolas’ arrows and Aragorn’s throwing dagger, then magically causes Aragorn’s sword to heat red-hot so he drops it (I’m going from memory, so I may not have all the details exactly right). Now imagine if, to do all that, he killed every tree within a 30 yards radius. Nothing flashy – they just turned a sort of sickly grayish color as the life was litterally drained out of them, and over the next week they died off. Even worse, the ground itself was tainted so that nothing else would grow in that spot for decades.

Welcome to Athas.

The Will and the Way

So I’m guessed most people reading this blog know what the term ‘psionic’ means, but just in case I’ll define it: wonky brain powers. Psychic abilities. Telekinesis. Such powers don’t come from an external source, like magic does, but from the deep well of mental focus and potential within. This potential, possessed universally on Athas, is known as the Will. Those individuals who choose to study and focus on developing these powers are called psionicists (a term that didn’t get past 2nd Edition, but more on that some other day), students of what Athasian’s call the Way.

Psionic rules, it should be noted, have been a part of D&D since pretty much the beginning. But always tacked-on, always optional, and always broken. One of the coolest things about psionics was that anyone could use them – the concept was called the wild talent, and basically every character got a random chance (like 2% or 3%) of having one. A wild talent was typically one weak psionic power (called “devotions”) you could use – by way of comparison a 1st-level psionicist knew something like 4 devotions and 2 stronger powers (called “sciences”). Also your power was determined randomly – meaning your power didn’t necessarily complement your character. A melee fighter might have a power that was only decent at range – or that might not have any combat application whatsoever. Integrating your wild talent into your character was always kind of cool, I thought.

The gladiator Neeva, by Brom.
The gladiator Neeva, by Brom.

Dark Sun incorporated psionics and made them an intrinsic part of the setting – as much as allegorical Christ-lions were to Narnia. Every player gets a wild talent, period. A significant percentage of the global population has some, mild psionic affinity (though not everyone – all players get a wild talent, but this does not correlate to the global population). Much like how magic skullfucked the ecology, the incorporation of psionics set the world apart – shifting the flavor from brutal fantasy to post-apocalyptic, which is traditionally a science-fiction subgenre.

This is starting to get a little long, so what I’m going to do is rattle off a handful more things that deserve an honorable mention, without going into as much detail, or we’ll be here forever:

  • The world is trying to kill you. Athas is one harsh motherfucker of a planet and it will fuck your shit up, son. Water is scarce, the desert is hot, and the fucked-up alien ecology is full of things that want to eat you. And don’t get any ideas – the cities are no safe haven of law, order and safety.
  • The sorcerer-kings. They rule the cities. I’m not going to start, because they deserve a post on their own some day – but they absolutely merit an honorable mention.
  • Gray morals. The paladin character class has always been (at least until 4th Edition) the gleaming beacon of hope, charity and pure goodness – expected to protect the weak, show mercy to their foes, and ultimately set an example for all. The Dark Sun setting book explicitly removes the paladin from the game – because there is no room for that kind of soft-hearted shit on Athas. Trust me, paladin-fans, they did you a favor – paladins wouldn’t last five fucking minutes. Kill or be killed is, more often than not, the rule of thumb on Dark Sun.
  • Metal poor. Metal is incredibly scarce on Athas – there’s only one iron mine that still exists (near the city of Tyr), and it’s of incredibly poor quality. Which means a few things – you never see suits of plate mail or metal armor (costs aside, they’re impractical on a desert world). Most weapons are made from alternate materials: wood, bone, obsidian, chitin. This one simple fact of the planet’s economy shifts everything again: from the classic Aragon in his silver breastplate to Conan in his loincloth.
  • The Arena. Living on Athas sucks. Given that, it’s little surprise that each of the city-states has a giant fucking arena in which the downtrodden masses get to watch gladiator-slaves fight to the death for their amusement. The ancient notion of bread and circuses is thoroughly in force in the city-states. I’m sure I’ll talk about this again, as well – I’m a big sucker for Roman history, and the gladiator games in particular always fascinate me.

We’re working our way to talking about DS4E, I swear. Next time, I’m going to touch on the shift in design philosophy over the last decade-plus of Dungeons & Dragons – the change in mindset and attitude as 2nd Edition transitioned to 4th Edition. A fairly strong case could be made that, philosophically, Dark Sun in many ways best exemplifies the old school of game design – and, as such, is incompatible with the newer editions. More on that next time.

Nerdstalgia

The Third Beatle

So I fucked up yesterday. Kinda. Don’t get me wrong – I think I expressed everything I want to express, got my message across pretty clearly. I’m as proud of the writing I produced yesterday as anything I’ve written in the last couple years, so it’s not that I fucked up as in the writing’s bad, or I wish I hadn’t written it.

I just left someone out. Someone important. And that’s Chris.

I honestly don’t remember if Chris was there that afternoon, when Glen first came up on the schoolyard – I don’t think so, because Chris and I really became friends when we were in the third grade, and Glen introduced me to D&D in the second grade. On the other hand,  the three of us all met each other back in preschool, so who the fuck knows? It doesn’t really matter, anyways. Whether he was there from the beginning, or shortly thereafter, is really inconsequential. Glen, Chris, and myself were the gaming group. A couple people hovered in and out – but at the core, from second grade until we all went to different universities, it was the three of us.

I was originally going to call this post The Fifth Beatle, because I left Chris out of my original post about gaming. But I decided not to because I felt the title would suggest that Chris was somehow in the background, or not really a part of the group, or somehow secondary to me and Glen – and that’s just not true. Not even a little.

Chris was the quiet one in the group – the one who was pretty much up to do anything, and only rarely had a specific idea of what that anything should be. And that trait makes it very difficult to write about my early relationship with Chris, because when you have two outgoing guys like Glen and myself around, the quiet guy tends to not be the one who sticks out in your memory 20 years later. So I’m going to do my best to explain this third pillar of our geeky triumvirate.

Teenagers are, by their very nature, virtually incapable of introspection so what I say now is something I realized only several years after we’d all moved on to carve out our own paths in the world: Chris was the glue that kept the three of us together. Glen and I were both the outgoing ones – and its a simple truth that guys who like to talk, need someone to talk to. The truth is that, when we were younger, I was never very good at listening to anyone else talk for too long. Same, I would guess, of Glen. But Chris? Fuck man, that guy was a champion listener.

Case in point: Chris and I spoke on the phone last September (maybe August) for the first time in a year. We were both moving away from Ontario. I think I spent most of the conversation prattling on about some ideas I’d been kicking around for a novel about religious vampires, and him making the occasional observation or suggestion. Like I said: champion listener.

The point I’m trying to make is that I think both Glen and I had a friendship with Chris that existed parallel to our group dynamic – one I don’t think Glen and I shared with each other until years later, when he moved across the country with his mother. Without Chris, Glen and I probably would have driven each other insane in a couple of years, and by the time high school rolled around we’d be nodding to each other in the hallways, and that’s it. It’s worth noting that I managed to get under Glen’s skin (or Glen managed to get under mine) a couple of times a year. A week or two would go by, each of us ignoring the other, each of us hanging out with Chris. Chris was never the messenger, but he always made sure we knew what the other was up to. Then, as if by magic, we’d all be hanging out again.

Sneaky motherfucker.

Ravenloft Boxed Set (1994)
Ravenloft Boxed Set (1994)

By way of comparison? I think I have been angry at Chris three times in the twenty-three years we’ve known each other. And only seriously pissed at him one time, for a particularly egregious violation of the Pax Testosteronem. Naturally it involved a girl. We solved that one in typical guy fashion – by never discussing it. Ever. Ahhh, teenage angst, how ridiculous you seem upon looking back.

This post isn’t really about gaming, or inspiration, or whatever. My love of the gothic horror genre came from Ravenloft – another D&D campaign setting, one that Chris introduced me to. My taste in movies and video games were definitely influenced by Chris. And of the three of us, at least at the time, Chris and I were probably more into books than Glen (although now that I think of it, that part really took off after Glen moved away with his mom when we were all 15 – so maybe he got hardcore into books too, but was on the other side of the country at the time?).

About a month ago, Chris updated his FaceBook with a status message about being “out of surgery”. I fired off an email right away, asking wtf? For all I knew, he was on his death bed. Turned out it was a pretty routine procedure, back thing, so cool. But in the day it took to get the reply, I’d already cast an eye toward figuring out how much a flight was going to cost – and how far I’d need to cast the net, and across how many credit cards, to book it. Last time Chris and I sat face to face, Glen was in the same room – it was 2006. And maybe we’re not “the group” anymore. Almost certainly, actually. But they’re both brothers to me in every way that matters – and that’s not the sort of thing that fades with time.

It was those two who taught me that family wasn’t really about blood, and that your truest of friends are family. And that, I suppose, is what this post is really about – setting the right tone for everything that’s to follow. Because when discussing my nerd pedigree, there are two names that must always be mentioned before any others. One is Glen, and I talked him up yesterday. The second is Chris, and now you know his name too.

Both of them were there, the day Rikus threw the Heartwood Spear. And I know most of you out there don’t get the reference. That’s cool. You don’t need to.

Tomorrow, I write the post I had originally intended to write today before I realized my oversight, explaining just why Dark Sun is the shit.