D&D4E, Dark Sun, Nerdstalgia

At the intersection of Nostalgia Avenue and Kickass Lane, Part I

As I’ve previously mentioned, I created this blog mostly to nerd out with brother-from-a-different-mother Glen. It offered me the opportunity to educate him on the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which he’d not yet had a chance to look at, and also gush about the return of my favorite setting. In the throes of great gush-itude, I made a number of predictions and guesses about what would be happening. Some were right, some were wrong, but there’s one I feel like hit the nail right on the head:

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.

Now that wasn’t exactly a tough prediction to make – you’ll hate it if you’re inclined to hate it – but I think it was pretty apt because things are different. They have to be, for it to work. Baker & co. had to choose between a properly balanced game product that played a little fast and loose with the setting in a few places, or an unbalanced game product that adhered to the setting canon perfectly but brought with it all the baggage of 2nd Edition. I may miss the quadruped thri-kreen, but I’ll never accuse them of getting their priorities wrong because they got them exactly right. To anyone still riding the hate-horse because things have changed, I say this: if you loved 2nd Ed. Dark Sun so much, who is stopping you from playing it?

Alright, enough of that, let’s really dig our teeth into the book here. I’ll be reviewing the Dark Sun Campaign Setting book exclusively here – maybe later I’ll dig into the Creature Catalog.

The Dark Sun Campaign Setting is a 222-page hardcover book that retails for $39.95 USD. As you’d expect from a Wizards of the Coast publication, the production values are excellent and the artwork is full-color and beautiful. I’ve got a few minor art gripes, only one of which I’ll mention below when I go voer chapter two, but with the rare exception every piece is nicely done and evocative of the setting. You can really get a feel for how this world is different and how its people are different from the typical, Tolkien-based fantasy setting.

Also in the package is a two-sided poster map, one side showing you the Tyr Region and the other providing you with an in-depth map of the city-state of Tyr itself. I like the poster map very much (it’s beautifully drawn) but have two problems with it – one genuine and one nit-picky. The genuine problem is that, at some point Wizards began including their poster maps by folding them down to fit inside the book and then binding them into the cover. The one portion of the map that is bound into the book’s spine is perforate so you can just easily tear it out, and then unfold your poster map to be useful. Maybe it’s just me, but I fucking loathe this method because on a spine of this length I find it extremely difficult to get the perforation to tear straight and always wind up taking tiny chunks of paper out of my otherwise beautiful and glossy poster map. I remember when I had a subscription to Dragon Magazine (the dead-tree, Paizo publication, not the current digital magazine) and every month it came with a post battlemap – which was also inside the magazine, attached by a tiny glue strip that was easy to remove without damaging either the magazine or the map. Whether the perforation method is being pursued for cost reasons or some other reason, I can’t really tell you but I hate it.

My nit-picky problem is that I’m fucking sick and tired of god damned Tyr. Jesus Christ, did the Tyrian Chamber of Commerce pay you fuckers off to constantly advertise how great it is? For five novels and three iterations of the campaign setting, it’s Tyr, Tyr, Tyr, Tyr, Tyr and I’m sick of it. Making it worse is that a map of every city-state is inside the book, at the same quality as the Tyrian map (the Tyrian map is also inside the book if you want to look at your poster map and strain your eyes at the same time). I’d have ordered my book through their website, and even paid a few extra dollars beyond the shipping, if I could have gotten any psoter map I wanted (say, ummmm, Balic). Anyways, it’s a minor point, but it’s just sort of pissing me off. Alright, on to the book itself.

Chapter One: The World of Athas gets the ball rolling nicely with a twelve page summary of Athasian society, culture, and how it differs from typical settings. While It never goes into too much detail, it neatly covers the lack of divine characters, a quick list of the world’s dangers, the social classes of the cities, literacy, coinage, languages, the Athasian calendar, a little bit of its history, the prevalence of psionics and the shunning of magic, the differences from the standard cosmology (in a nutshell the Feywild is being torn apart as a side effect fo defiling, and if you even manage to get the the Astral Sea – the typical home of the gods – you’ll find it an empty, desolate ghost-town of a plane). It amnages to do this is twelve pages, and I feel provides ample information for a complete novice to truly get a feel for what they’re embarking upon.

The only gripe I have with this section is it omits something when discussing the calendar. They mention, briefly, how years are named in two parts and mention the current year (Priest’s Defiance), previously year (Desert’s Slumber) and the upcoming year (Wind’s Reverence). They also mention that it is presently the 190th King’s Age – but they leave you completely ignorant of A) how long a King’s Age is or B) how to figure out the name of any year other than the three named ones. I own the old products, so I’m fine, but for the space it would have taken up I think it would have been worth including. Other than this, however, this section is fantastic and does a lot to help encourage those new to Dark Sun – and soothe we old hands, showing us the Athas we love and remember is still there.

Chapter Two: Races of Athas kicks things off by providing us with two Dark Sun-specific races – the mul and the thri-kreen. Muls pretty much shape up as I expected, with a few abilities I didn’t anticipate – specifically Born of Two Races, which lets them take either dwarf or human feats (and which I should have predicted) and Mul Vitality which gives them an extra healing surge. Also, the previously mentioned condition resistance appears in the form of Incredible Toughness, an encounter power that shrugs off a dazed, slowed, stunned, or weakened condition. Thri-kreen, meanwhile, I knew a lot less about in advance but seem to conform to my expectations. They get a +2 to Athletics and Nature, as I expected, and they get a boost to jumping which makes sense. I’m sure lots of people will be unhappy with the new thri-kreen, but I happen to like threm – and they get a lot of the old stuff (incredible spring attacks, paralyzing bite) in the thri-kreen paragon path anyways.

After the introduction of these two new races, the rest get a brief treatment. All of the Player’s Handbook 1 races, plus the Goliath, get discussed over seven pages. With the exception of the character backgrounds, there’s no mechanics here – this is strictly a discussion about how the various races function, socially and culturally, in the very different world of Dark Sun. I mentioned an art gripe with this chapter, and this is where I find it. I love the artwork here, my only problem is that there isn’t enough of it. Specifically, as each races is radically different from its “traditional fantasy setting” counterpart, why isn’t a picture of each race included to show you what they look like? Of the three missing races, most egregious is the absence of the eladrin and the tiefling as both were non-existant during the original Dark Sun product run – more than any other races, they ought to be depicted in this section. Other than that minor gripe, however, I think these chapter does a good job catching everyone up on what it’s like to be a resident of Athas and how the various races are different from their counterparts.

Lastly we get three paragon paths – the half-giant thug, the mul battle slave, and the thri-kreen predator. All of them are cool, and nicely fit both the setting and the race, and I can see playing as any one of them. I’d have liked to see more paragon paths – they obviously felt they had to include a paragon path for each new race, and added one more as they’d radically changed the “flavor” of the Goliath – but I also recognize that there are space constraints.

At the time of writing it’s been seven days since my last update – and in that previous update, I said I was going to be updating more frequently (technically every seven days is more frequent than every nine!), so I think I’m going to do this review in two or three parts. I’ve been busy this past week as, at long last, I prepare to get my Dark Sun campaign underway. I’ll be talking about my campaign, my sessions, and my players (who are dedicated to driving me insane) soon.

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D&D4E, Dark Sun

Getting back in the swing of things

So a little more than a week ago I tossed up a two paragraph post letting you all know I hadn’t died on my journey, and that I’d resume posting shortly. Apparently “shortly,” in Brian-speak, translates to “nine days.”

Before I move on to anything else, I want to throw out a major thank you to Glen, who managed to update my blog while also updating his own, and who moved an even farther distance not that long before I did. That there are still people coming here to read what’s being posted is something I credit entirely to him, and I’ve had a blast reading his posts – especially the one about Lorakin (who, as I recall, I eventually started locking in a box because he was driving me nuts). It is my fondest hope that in the future, when Glen’s nerd-dial finds itself turned back up to 10, he’ll remember this place fondly and come by to pay us a visit – regaling us with the occasional tale or point of view. Critical-Hits this place is not, but if he wants to blog about D&D and Dark Sun, he’ll always be free to borrow my soapbox.

Secondly, a couple of administrative announcements. First of all, I do intend to start blogging regularly again now that I’ve driven cross-country, flown the last leg of the journey, arrived at the home of my friends, and all-around begun to settle in. That said, I am also on the job hunt as well as preparing to resume my studies in September, so my goal is to update two-three times weekly. I will also be doing some work on the blog itself – we’re long overdue for some “About the Blog/Author/etc.” pages, and I plan on looking into options for sprucing the place up with custom CSS and design so it doesn’t look like every other WordPress-hosted rpg blog out there. But that’s in the future.

Thirdly and lastly, as I mentioned in my all-too-brief last post, I picked up the Dark Sun Campaign Setting shortly after returning to civilization. Since then, I’ve actually had time to sit down and read the thing and I intend to kick things off with a fairly in-depth look at things. Where I was right, where I was wrong, and what I think of the thing as a whole. In short, though? I liked it. A lot. Enough that I’ve gone out and procured copies of the Dark Sun Creature Catalog, the Desert of Athas Dungeon Tiles, and the introductory adventure Marauders of the Dune Sea. So, you know, I’m clearly a fan. I’m also tossing out my earlier stated plans, and have decided that my party of rookies will be cutting their teeth on chitin armor and obsidian spears. What this means for the World Workshop I’ll address sometime next week, I expect.

All in all, I’m feeling good, happy to be home, and looking forward to getting my nose back to the old blog grindstone. See you next time.

Nerdstalgia

Silvaaris, The Playwright

“AAARRGGGH” The giant roared as his club came swinging down.

Korizan dodged out of the way as he plunged his sword into the creature. The giant staggered back, it knew the end was near.

The giant swung again, this time knocking Korizan down with a crushing blow.

Korizan looked up, dazed. He rolled out of the way before the club could come crashing down on his head.

A loud crackled filled the air as a blue bolt of energy zipped into view. The giant let out a yelp in agony as it crashed down to the ground.

Korizan smiled, Lisus the mage save him yet again with a well placed evocation. The two nodded in appreciation for another battle won. The looked around the scene to find their missing companion. Had he fallen to the giant without them realizing it? Or was he up to his usual tricks?

Lisus looked behind a pile of rubble and saw Silvaaris with his notebook in hand.

“Just a second” Silvaaris said as he scribbled upon his pages.

“Mighty Silvaaris” he wrote down “delivers the death blow and saves Korizan and Lisus from the giants clutches”

“This is going to look great on stage!” he thought.

Character motivation is a bit of a funny thing. Maybe its because I have created so many PCs and NPCs over the years, but I find the usual “Dream of Glory”, “Looking for Money”, or “Out for Revenge”, character concepts to be rather dull at this point in my life. Surely there have to be reasons beyond fame, fortune, or vengeance out there to inspire the host of heroes that we all play. Yet far too often those very superficial and uninspiried tales fill the back-stories of our favourite PCs. Surely we can start coming up with something more interesting than that, right?

That’s were Silvaaris comes in for me. He had dreams of glory, but in a very different way. He never wanted to be known as the greatest hero in the land. Adventure, he thought, was a means to an end. Silvaaris was a bard that I created on time and remains my most favoured character that I’ve ever played, even if he did not last particularly long. He had great ambitions of fame and fortune, but not as a warrior, but as an actor and playwright.

Silvaaris had dreams of writing and performing in the greatest play of all time. It centred around a great adventurer embarking on fantastic voyages and performing heroic feats. However, the problem for Silvaaris was that he had no experience in this field and wanted to make his play as realistic as possible. As such, he decided to set off on a life of adventure and excitement in order to inspire his writings. The lead character in the story would also be named Silvaaris, but that was purely coincidental. It was a common name after all.

The first encounter that the group faced was a run-of-the-mill combat scene. A few goblins or something spring up and try to take on the party to no avail. I scribble down notes of the encounter, claiming (meta-game) to be the note-taker for the party, sinceo ne never knows what will be important later.

I write down the summary of the encounter as follows “Hundreds of golbins emerge. Party begins to panic. Silvaaris issues a commanding and profound speech to calm the party down. People struggle under the horde, but Silvaaris saves the day, single handedly slaying more goblins than he could count”.

Obviously, none of that happened. Silvaaris in fact had a strength of 8 and spent most of the encounter hiding, shotting his crossbow and signing to inspire. Hardly the stuff of legends, but that didn’t matter to Silvaaris, a little artistic freedom was necessary after all.

Sadly though, that evening while Silvaaris was on watch he heard a noise in the bushes. He went to investigate, only to discover a ghoul in the bushes. He rolled away and shot his crossbow (totally Matrix-style) before having the creature lunge at him and eventually tearing him apart.

When they searched my body, the DM forced me to hand over my notes. Which at that point had long filled a page, mostly with talk of how inferior they all were to the mighty Silvaaris. Needless to say the characters weren’t to pleased, but at least the players were.

I had great plans for the rest of Silvaaris adventuring career. I thought that the performance would have been a great role-playing opportunity, and I was really looking forward to getting him to begin method-acting in the middle of adventures. I really wanted to practice soliloquies at very inappropriate and potentially dangerous moments.

But alas, this one ended in a tragedy. It may not have been the story that Silvaaris wanted, but it most certainly is one worth telling.

Until next time,

G

Nerdstalgia

Lorakin, A Different Kind of Intelligent Sword

“I’m bored.  How much longer do we have to walk?” he asked again.

Korina grunted.  How much more did she have to put up with this?

“I’m bored.  Are we there yet? Do you think there will be any girls at our next stop?”

Thankfully she wasn’t his type.

“I’m HUNNGGGGRRRYYY” he continued.

Korina wondered what it was that he even ate.  She had annoying party members many times, but none like this.
“I want to fight something.  We haven’t done that in a while!”

“That’s it!” Korina exclaimed.  “It’s time for you to take a nap”

“But I’m not tire–“

As a general guideline I tend to steer clear of intelligent items. I don’t have any problem with them game-wise. Sure they can be powerful, but that’s fine with me. I just have a hard time playing one. I have a hard time seeing how something that a truly intelligent object would be so gung-ho to serve and protect whatever shmuck happens to find it. I mean, shouldn’t it have thoughts and feelings of its own? What if it was attached to its old owner, wouldn’t it hate the new one for killing it? What if it like the centuries of solitude inside the dragon cave and hated to be disturbed? Or consequently, what if being alone for so long drove it mad. How would the object react if its owner finds an upgrade and chooses that instead?

Also, and more pragmatically, an intelligent item always has to be on. It’s not like the bartender or prince, who you only need to know how to act for a short amount of time, the character always has this item. They can always ask for its thoughts and opinions, you always have to be ready to act and react according to the character that you create for it. I’ve always been worried that I would more or less get bored of the intelligent item and not want to pay as it anymore.

Now, this is all with one exception, Lorakin, the intelligent sword. But before I get into him, let me give you a bit of a backdrop. There were a few summers where I DMed Brian and Chris in a very laissez-faire style. Basically, those two had more or less separate agendas and I mostly just reacted, often they would be together, but occasionally they would spend days apart doing a variety of different zany adventures. I did very little prep work, considering how often we played. It remains to this day, my favourite campaign (actually two campaigns in consecutive years…but that is mostly because 3rd Edition came out between those year) that I’ve ever been a part of.

Because these two were constantly running around the area doing whatever the hell they pleased, I had to find ways to bring the two of them back together. Usually one of them would come across some zany scheme, and needing backup, they got the other one to come along. Lorakin, was just such a scheme.

I don’t remember exactly how Brian came across Lorakin, but he did. I think that the sword was locked in some vault, in a thieves den that Brian’s character had infiltrated, but I’m possibly wrong about that one. Anyway, that part of the story is not important. What matter is Lorakin himself.

Lorakin was not a traditional, snobby, heroic intelligent sword. In fact he was quite the opposite. He was obnoxious and horny. Yes, you read that correctly, Lorakin’s primary motivations were carnal in nature. I sort of based the character off of an NC-17 version of the Genie from Alladin. He kept yammering on and on about how long his last owner locked him in a trunk for talking too much, and he really had some needs that needed to be address.

Essentially this, but more pointy and innapropriate

He remembered seeing a lovely looking scimitar in the hands of some noble in the next town over. Brian’s character being a charlatan (that is both in profession, and as a Bard Kit) decided to go and relieve this noble of his scimitar, and as much else as he could find. This was just the nobleman who Chris was dealing with for one of his zany adventures. Ta da, problem solved.

Lorakin wasn’t particularly powerful (I think just a measly +1), or knowledgeable, but was particularly annoying, lecherous, and liked to get drunk. But really, if we all have had party members who behaved that way, why is it weird to have weapons act that way?

Until next time,

G

Administrative

Arrived Safely!

Just wanted to take a brief moment to toss this out and let everyone who’s following know that my plane did not crash, and I did not die. I am once again in London, Ontario getting settled in and reconnecting with old friends.

I see Glen’s been keeping everyone entertained with his own postings and I look forward to reading some more. I plan on resuming my own posting later in this week or at the beginning of the next. I’m still running around doing errands and seeing old familiar faces.

Oh, also? I bought the Dark Sun Campaign Setting yesterday. So, I’ve got some reading to do.

Nerdstalgia

Torjaran, The Rival

The party took a collective breath, they were finally there.  After what felt like months crawling through this dungeon, they have finally reached their goal.  All of the monsters had been vanquished, and all that stood between them and the great Sword of Silthorn was that door ahead.

Ragnor, the strongest and least injured of the bunch, reached forward with trepidation.  He felt the handle of the door around his hand; he was almost there.  Slowly the door creaked open.

In front of them was an all to familiar sight, and their hearts filled with rage.

There standing in front of them was their old rival, Torjaran inspecting the sword.

“Too late yet again” he said as he sheathed the sword and ran off.

I was DMing my cousins a long time ago in a game and I did the very typical plot-hook of an “Adventurer Challenge”. Orcs had been ravaging this town that they came across and so the Mayor tried to call upon all heroes to stop the bandits. There was some cash reward offered to the person who brought back the head of the orc leader. Obviously, I was getting my inspiration from every Gygax-inspired module that I had bought, but hey it was the mid-90s and a much simpler time.

But to make a twist on this, I introduce the PCs to a few extra groups trying to do the same thing. A few groups were pretty run of the mill, you know three to five characters with a mixture of classes and races. But one group was actually a party of one. One snobby character who did not really bother to talk to the PCs or anyone else.

As the PCs got close to the orc lair, they found one of the parties all killed with arrows in their back. They then got to the orc lair at the same time as another party. The two ended up finding the leader at about the same time and had to bargain (in mid-combat) that whoever struck the winning kill got to keep the head. This of course lead to an entertaining battle sequence where the PCs were trying to inflict light damage at first, hoping that the NPCs would soften them up for a few rounds before the party got the death kill.

The two parties were laughing over their battle, and giving well wishes as they returning to town (with the head firmly in control of my cousins), when disaster struck. Arrows began flying all over the place, full of sleep poison. It fell the members of the other party very quickly, and then slowly wore down my PCs enough. As the last one passed out they saw that solitary human, Torjaran, take the head of the orc chieftain.

As the PCs returned to town, this man was celebrated as a hero with parties going on in his honour, for he had stopped the orc threat all by himself, surely he must be a brave soul.

Several adventures later, I had the PCs run into him on an underwater adventure in a sunken ship (full of stale air). As the PCs were ready to kill him, a horde of Sea Trolls began crashing on the outside of the ship. Torjaran pulled out a magical sphere that he said would transport all of them back to the surface, so long as they allowed him to split the treasure in half (one for him, one for them). Seeing little choice, they grabbed what they could and beamed out. (By the way, I made up that magic sphere, I said that there were two matching spheres, and with the right command word it would teleport the two together, but it needed the power of at least two people to work it…really a magical item build for this ethical and character driven dilemma – which brings me to an important aside, never be afraid to stretch the rules or limits of a concept in exchange for a good story, that’s what you’ll remember the most).

Now, sadly the summer (and therefore the game) ended before I could complete the final installment on The Rival Trilogy of adventures. I was going to have him get promoted eventually the the King’s High Court, earning that position by slaying the vicious Green Dragon that had long tormented the countryside. After some investigation, the PCs would find that he had in fact aligned himself with the dragon, and was helping it raid a nearby kingdom instead. The Green Scale shield that Torjaran carried was in fact the scale of a Lizardman, but nobody knew any different. The King would obviously cast Torjaran from his court. Disgraced, he would seek vengeance on the PCs and they would of course defeat him in a very climactic battle.

While of course the PCs are exceptional people in the fantasy world, by no means should they be unique. Obviously there must be some other characters out there who posses a similar talent and thirst for adventure. Obviously not all of them would be as morally virtuous as your characters (hopefully) are. A rival villain only really works if he is several levels higher than the PCs (so that he can defeat them single-handedly at first), and he needs to win. Obviously he can’t win forever, but a few victories over the PCs can go a long way towards establishing motivation.

Remember, characters are used to getting what they want all the time, it’s fun to make them wait for it sometimes. So when you are finally ready to let go of The Rival as a villain, the victory will feel so much better. And after that rival is dead, you can always create another one. Or have him come back from the dead to seek vengeance…but that may be taking it a bit too far.

I hope you enjoyed meeting Torjaran, next time I’ll introduce you to Lorakin, a Different Kind of Intelligent Sword. Trust me, you’ll like this one…

Until next time,

G

Nerdstalgia

Colourful Characters – An Introduction

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As Brian stated a while ago, this blog is under (temporary) new management.  I am Glen, and I seem to be discussed a fair amount around these parts.  I do enjoy making an effort to read this blog, and not just because so many posts are about me, but also because Brian has always had some great insight into the game and has a wonderful imagination.  Oh yeah, and so many posts are about me.

I gave a fair amount of thought (read:   four to seven minutes on the toilet) as to what I would post here in Brian’s absence.  I thought about posting about Dark Sun, but I do have some hesitations about it.  Most of the games I ran on Athas were pretty early in my DMing days, and many of the adventures weren’t exactly cutting edge or new.  I love the setting and the concept, but to be perfectly honest, it never fully inspired me as a DM.  Now I don’t mean that as an insult at all.  I really don’t think that I have ever been truly and fully inspired by any campaign setting.  Dragon Lance, seemed to set in stone,  Forgotten Realms seemed too generic, and Ravenloft never quite gave me the jolt that I needed.  I think that I need a world unto my own.  A canvas to cover with my nerdy ambitions.

This is one of the reasons that I jumped so eagerly at joining Brian for our little side project, ahem…FuckedWorld (his title, not mine).  I love to create things of my own.  But Brian and I different in our approaches to world design.  He is very good at created broad, sweeping worlds with long tumultuous histories, and tomes of legends and lore for this new fictional place.  My style on the other hand is much simpler.  I figure out the place that I want to set the first dozen or so adventures, and build around that.

Wow…I just re-read what I’ve written so far, and I’m really starting to veer off topic.  I guess Brian’s tangential writing style is contagious.

Anyway, because I tend to think small in my campaign designing, I think that I am very good at creating something as a DM, recurring characters.  I tend to be pretty good at inventing entertaining and engaging characters that the PCs bump into time and time again.  I think that this is a very important step in building an interesting and interactive game world.  They also provide excellent motivation and hooks for adventures.  PCs are far more likely to jump to the aid of an elderly man that has sheltered them time and time again, than some randomly generated innkeeper.

So I have prepared to introduce you to four friends of mine in the coming days.  Sure they may be fictional, but that doesn’t stop them from being awesome.  They are an adventuring rival, a different kind of intelligent sword, an egotistical playwright, and a gnome who has had his sanity blown away to the wind.  All of these characters have been used in a campaign by me at one point or another (one in three separate campaigns actually).  They have all been a great pleasure to know over the years, and I hope that you enjoy their company in the coming days as well, and perhaps get to know them in a fantasy world near you.

Until next time,

G