When I previously mentioned the end of Balic Rising, I alluded to the fact that the loss of three out of five players wasn’t the entire story behind my decision to close the door on that campaign. I had more than three people who weren’t in the game that wanted to be if a spot opened up – we absolutely could have kept going.
The reasons I decided to stop, then, was mainly that I didn’t want to run a Dark Sun game any longer. Which is sort of a strange thing to say, on my gaming blog that started as a Dark Sun blog, with its Dark Sun-themed title. And it’s nothing against DS4e – I said it was an excellent product, and I absolutely meant it.
The problem is that Dark Sun -both mechanically and thematically – is not good for beginners. It led to a set of circumstances in which I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the game I was running.
None of my five players in the Balic Rising campaign had played 4th edition before, and I hadn’t run it previously. One had never played D&D before, one hadn’t played since the 90’s, one since the early 2000’s, and two had previously played once before.
Thematically, I love Dark Sun because it breaks all of the familiar fantasy tropes. It inverts expectations, and leaves you stunned by how strange and alien things are. But when you’re busy trying to learn the fundamentals of how the game system works, you don’t necessarily notice those expectations being suborned. And if you’re brand-new, you don’t realize that tropes are being broken because you’re not invested in those concepts.
The end result was that I kept throwing stuff out to amaze, and it didn’t, and I found that frustrating. Not because of a problem with my players, or the source material – but because I chose to use the wrong source material with the wrong audience. Dark Sun was always for experienced D&D groups back in the day, and I’d say it still is in the modern edition.
Mechanically, meanwhile, the problem was that there’s a lot of extra stuff. Psionics function differently that other classes, which made learning more complicated for a couple of our players. Character themes add an additional layer of complexity that is awesome – but not for someone who’s still learning the basics.
So, when I decided to end the campaign I knew two things – I wanted to run another one and that it wasn’t going to be Dark Sun. I was also so buried that I didn’t want to have to do much in the way of work, because I just didn’t have the time to put into it. So I decided to go simple – I’d run Keep on the Shadowfell, set in the Nentir Vale (the “default” D&D setting).
Based on the size of it, I expected to finish school before needing to develop any additional material for my group, buying me time while also giving me something to do. That’s not exactly how things worked out – the later addition of a sixth party member meant I had to rejigger things to maintain challenge and keep the party progressing – but mostly things went according to plan.
The party is now on the cusp of hitting level 7, and things have been going really well. I’m looking forward to discussing some of the things I’ve been doing in the campaign – both in terms of storytelling and design.