Reskinning Shadowfell: Sir Keegan

As I said last time, I got started on my current D&D campaign by running Keep on the Shadowfell – the first official 4th Edition D&D adventure released by Wizards of the Coast. They’ve since released a PDF version for free, which makes commenting on the changes I’ve made super-easy as you all can follow along if you’re so inclined. Today we’ll be looking at pages 42-43, Area 8: Sir Keegan’s Tomb. My own rewritten version can be found here.

A detailed examination – and spoilers – after the jump. Continue reading


The Chain Made Whole

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.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

Balic Rising: Cast of Characters

On a scale of “I suck” to “I suck” it probably surprises none of you to learn that I suck.

My last blog post was on the 26th of August – 74 days ago.

Like I said – I suck.

Now then, on to business. I left-off halfway through a review of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. I wish I could say “and tomorrow I’ll be finishing it up” but that would be a lie. So let me man the fuck up and give you all the facts:

  1. I just started a new job two weeks ago.
  2. I’m buried up to my neck in school work.
  3. I’m back home and even after two months, which affords me all kinds of opportunities to reconnect with old friends.
  4. I’m running a weekly DS4e campaign entitled Balic Rising.
  5. Right now, all of those things are just flat-out more important to me than blogging.

So there it is. Which begs the question of the future of The City-State of Balic. I got an e-mail from old friend Glen saying we should get back to work on FuckedWorld (he’s been crazy busy since changing jobs himself), and I wholeheartedly agree. But I’m done trying to pretend my life is the same as it was when I lived in the Arctic Circle – blogging is no longer the most fun way to spend my hours. To that end, I plan on discussing the Balic Rising campaign here. If Glen and I resume our FuckedWorld-ery, it’ll go up here too. Everything else? Is on an indefinite hold.

Except that half-finished Dark Sun Campaign Setting review. I’m going to finish it right here: it was awesome, the end!

Now let me introduce you to the party. Consisting of my girlfriend, brother, and three best friends, none of these folks have played 4th Edition before. At least one of them hasn’t played Dungeons & Dragons ever before and another one hasn’t played in over a decade. And the principal rule at our table: it’s just a game. I’m running adventures and telling a story, true – but I have had to accept that fun is more important than “realism” (a stupid concept when you rationally consider trying to make a fantasy setting “real”). That means some of these characters are somewhat silly. Some of them are very silly. I humbly suggest you get over it – I had to.

Alright. The party. Here we go – I’m going to do this alphabetically, for simplicity’s sake.

First up we have Anachia Ri, a tiefling battlemind with the noble adept character theme. Using the wild battlemind build presented in the DSCS, she wears scale armor, wields an executioner’s axe, and favors attacks that either push enemies back or knock them prone. A former student at Balic’s premier psionic academy, the Cerebran, Anachia left the school under circumstances that are somewhat vague (she may have dropped out, she may have been kicked out, we’re not entirely sure). Played by my girlfriend (who’s brand-new to D&D), I find it extremely amusing she’s playing a class that can glare you into a coma if you piss her off. So, you know, art imitating life.

Next is Ara’Darashee, elf ranger, and her not-long-for-this-world dagorran companion Esta’Imra. Played by one of my closest friends (and one of my current housemates), we don’t know much about Ara’Darashee’s past or personality yet, but I’m looking forward to digging into it as the campaign moves along. As I mentioned above, all my players are new to 4th Edition and Ara’Darashee is a good example of a character in the process of evolving to match her player’s interests. From level one to level two, she’s changed gears from beast mastery to archery specialization (thus the comment about poor, poor Esta’Imra – whose horrifying eventual fate will be the subject of a future blog post), likewise changing character themes from the melee-oriented gladiator to the poison-based Athasian minstrel theme.

Third in the lineup is Doctor Rockzo – yes, named after that Doctor Rockzo – played by another close friend and former co-worker. Doctor Rockzo is a dwarf summoner druid with the primal guardian character theme. Specifically, Doctor Rockzo is able to summon the mighty and powerful spirit of Carl Weathers the Goat – a goat who follows doctor Rockzo all the time, but has no statistical relevance except when summoned. Oh, and Carl is addicted to cocaine, so Doctor Rockzo doesn’t so much “summon” his goat, as throw a fistful of blow at the ground, which Carl Weathers snorts and then – being all “coked out” – the goat is ready to fight.

Yes, I am aware that there are no goats or cocaine on Athas. But Rockzo has fun with it, and makes it entertaining. He also likes to use his wild shape power to take a goat form of his own so him and Carl can get “intimate.” Yes, it’s going to be that kind of campaign. No, I won’t be offended if you choose to stop reading now.

Played by my brother, we come to Omega Doom – whose name changes every week to a different ridiculous movie character. Given how fluid the minds and personalities of half-giants are, though, I suppose it makes a certain sort of sense. A half-giant barbarian gladiator with a love of axes and SMASH!!! Omega Doom is brutal and merciless. He also drinks a lot, is the dumbest member of the party, and may or may not be attracted to all sexes, species and animals. Suffice to say that there are some jokes going around about Omega and Carl. Once again – I won’t be offended if you depart this blog in disgust. We don’t know much about this character’s past yet either – for the time being I’m happy to let my players focus on learning the game, and work out the story elements later on down the road.

Finally we have Zem, formally styled Zem the VI, played by my other housemate and real-life husband of Ara’Darashee. A dragonborn warlord with the noble adept character theme, Zem also attended the Cerebran – and may very well have been a freshman when Anachia Ri was being “cordially invited to depart our esteemed halls of learning, you base trollop!” He likely served his time in the Balican legions as a junior officer, which would technically have made him part of Andropinis’ templar bureaucracy – though not a “capital-T” Templar, invested with the sorcerer-king’s arcane might. Zem typically enters battle bearing a flail and shield, though later he’ll swap his flail for a longsword as well as develop a growing affection for javelins.

It’s an interesting party, and we’ve been having a lot of fun – with five sessions already under our belt, they’ve hit level two, grown comfortable with their abilities, learned to work together tactically, and (thusfar) murdered 41 living creatures. Next time, I’ll cover our first two sessions, comprising the mini-adventure Sand Raiders.

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.

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.

D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – An Open Letter

Dear Jeff Mariotte,

I first heard about your forthcoming novel, City Under the Sand, while writing a previous article. I couldn’t remember the name of the woman who had written Rise and Fall of a Dragon King (it was Lynn Abbey, by the way), and hit up the Wikipedia article on the setting. Skimming through the list of novels I saw all the usual suspects – The Prism Pentad by Troy Denning, the Tribe of One trilogy by Simon Hawke, and the Chronicles of Athas by a bunch of talented writers who didn’t feel like doing their research. And there, at the bottom, I saw something that had never been there before. Something thrilling. Something exciting.

New Fiction (2010) – Various Authors.

I am not ashamed to say that I nearly wept at the sight of it. Then pumped my fist in the air, all Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club-style. I promptly went to read the summary of your novel.

I’m pretty fucking excited. Just thought you’d like to know.



D&D4E, Dark Sun

DS4e – Hitting the Reset Button

One of the more interesting things about the new, 4th Edition take on Dark Sun is that they’re doing something I normally abhor – but in this case am actually right on board with. Am I making an exception for Dark Sun just because it’s Dark Sun, thus proving my pathetic fanboyish-ness? Probably – but I run a blog about Dungeons & Dragons. So I’m not exactly “Mr. Cool” to begin with.

The Prism Pentad series really gave Dark Sun most of its details and iconic characters. Rikus and Neeva, Agis of Asticles, Rajaat War-Bringer, Borys of Ebe, Tithian the Turd (though he may not have gotten that nickname until the Chronicles of Athas books) were all introduced by the Pentad. Well, to be fair Borys already existed, but just as “The Dragon.” It made the sorcerer-kings truly cool by revealing who they were and how they had come to power – then proceeded to take these amazing, awesome characters of near infinite power and kill most of them.

Similarly to what Hayden Christensen did to Darth Vader, the Prism Pentad series did to the sorcerer-kings – took something you used to think was cool, then ruined them. The sorcerer-kings didn’t become lame like Vader did, but it’s a moot point because the majority of them died, which meant – if you ran an “official” Dark Sun campaign – they weren’t of much use to your game anyways.

My favorite sorcerer-king was always Hammanu, who happened to survive the Pentad series, only to get bumped off in Rise and Fall of a Dragon King. Spoiler Alert. Don’t worry, the entire Chronicles of Athas series has been retconned as being non-canonical anyways – Lynn Abbey (and possibly the other contributing authors, I’m not sure) were pretty well known to have taken some “liberties” with the established material. Besides, there’s a statute of limitations on spoilers for novels published 14 years ago.

Anyways, the point I’m getting at – in my patented rambling fashion – is that the progression of the Dark Sun timeline was a mixed bag. The original Dark Sun was very mysterious, with little of the history of the world known or understood. The Pentad revealed most of that history – and, to give Denning his due, it was brilliant – but at the same time, some of the mystery and confusion was lost. And there is a very vocal contingent on any Dark Sun-themed board or community that wishes the “revised” Dark Sun campaign setting (the one that incorporates the Pentad) had never happened.

So it’s not that surprising that DS4e will be winding the clock backwards. Apparently the wayback machine will be transporting Sherman and Mr. Peabody to the time immediately following The Verdant Passage – i.e. directly following the death of Kalak, and prior to the war between Tyr and Urik. It’s weird, because retcons typically piss me off, but I’m cool with this. In fact, in my own eventual Dark Sun campaign I intend to wind the clock back even further, to the time when sorcerer-kings were seen as undying gods-made-flesh. The minute one of them bites it, the entire society and culture of the entire Tablelands is almost certainly going to begin to shift and change.

My attitude toward the Pentad, when I run the game, is that it’s a great novel series and an excellent go-to guide for Athas’ history – and that’s it. I guarantee, that even if I do start bumping off sorcerer-kings, the progression will be a very different thing than what’s detailed in the Pentad.

If nothing else, most of my friends are very literate. I don’t dare follow a roadmap that exists anywhere but inside my head if I want to keep them on their toes.

I’m excited to say that, my last Shameless finally garnered some commentary from people I’ve never met before – at long last, a chiming of thought and opinion from someone I didn’t date or go to school with. This is a trend I want to continue, so I’m going to start ending some of these posts with a call for commentary. How do you let novels and other sources of “official” canon affect the plotlines of your games? And, as a follow-up, when basing your campaign on a novel or movie, what do you do when you later find out one (or more) or your players has read it or seen it?