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.


Dungeon Master, Thy Name is Douche

This is another one of those “wow, it sucks when the DM is a douchebag” stories. This time, however, the douchebag in question is me.

Seems only fair, doesn’t it? Last time I ripped into Glen. This time, I put myself on the bit.

My only excuse for this behavior is that A) I was seventeen years old and B) the guy sort of had it coming.

I was in the twelfth grade at the time. Glen had moved to Nova Scotia with his mother. Chris and I were still hanging out, but he and I didn’t do much roleplaying (except in the summers, when Glen came back to visit his Dad) for whatever reason. I spent a lot of time hanging out with my local rpg shop crowd, as I’ve already mentioned.

At some point, I got convinced to run a D&D game for a bunch of these people. J&B Books (the aforementioned gaming shop) ran a weekly “gaming night,” so it worked out perfectly. Except, you know, none of those people were really my friends – in the same way that 99% of the people I used to work with weren’t my friends, just people I had one thing in common with. I wound up running a game with a party of six or seven people, which is a few heads more than my preferred group size (these days it takes a lot for me to even entertain the idea of running a game for more than four players). The group composition was all over the place two – with a couple players younger than me, a couple my own age, and one who was more than twice my age. That guy was Scott, and he’s the guy who “had it coming.”

At least, I think his name was Scott. There were three guys in that group of people that I can’t really separate anymore – they were all in their mid-to-late forties, they all had 20+ years of D&D experience, and they all thought they knew better than me (and everyone else, for that matter). One was named Scott, another was named Dave, and I don’t remember the other one’s name. One of them wound up in this game I ran, and I don’t know which. I’ll call him Scott just to keep things simple.

The problem with Scott was that he knew better than everyone. You’d have thought it was Gary Gygax sitting across from you at the table, from they way he talked down to everyone (not trying to start a debate on whether Gygax was a saint or a jerk, just saying that Scott had a very high opinion of his “expertise”) – and it really was everyone. He bullied other players, both in-character and out-of-character. He rules lawyer-ed with me, constantly arguing most of my rulings and pushing for his own way. I have no one to blame but myself, really – at our very first session, I set the tone that allowed him to get away with all that crap by letting him play one of his existing characters.

Let that be a lesson to all your rookie DMs out there – bullshit at the game table only breeds more bullshit, and it’s your job to stamp it out with ruthless efficiency. No matter where you play, the game table is your table. Never forget that. (Yes, the sacrosanct Grand Poobah-ness of the Dungeon Master is not a universally recognized truth. I’ll discuss my feelings on it some other time.)

So, Scott was driving me nuts. Nuts. And I wasn’t the only one – literally every other player at the table had a beef with him. Every single one of them approached me, privately, at one point or another complaining about his treatment of the rest of the party. About how they weren’t having fun when Scott was telling them how to correctly play their own character (one of my favorite dumbass aphorisms to come out  of Scott’s mouth was: “if your paladin lives past 10th level, then you aren’t playing him correctly”). About how it wasn’t fun when the game bogged down because Scott had to make a point about something.

The solution I came up with seemed elegant and appropriate, at the time. I took every player (except Scott, of course) aside, reminded them that Scott treated them poorly in-character as well as out, informed them that every other player in the party felt the same way, and then pointed out the incredible opportunities afforded by the 3rd Edition flanking rules, and sent them on their way.

The next session, the party “et tu, Brute?”-ed Scott. By which I mean they caught him off-guard and stabbed him to death, just as Marcus Brutus & co. once did to Julius Caesar. Then I got in on the action, informing Scott that he I was booting his ass out of the group, right around the time the party was hacking his limbs off and burying them in different places.

Let me be clear – I wish I’d dealt with the matter better. I handled it very poorly. I doubt taking Scott aside and trying to talk to him would have done much good, but I still should have made the effort. Instead, I decided to get in on the action and make myself feel good. I wasn’t a very confidant DM yet, and Scott was the old gamer who felt it was his personal role to take a shit on all the people like me who didn’t think the way he did.

So, in summary, I’m not proud of what I did, but I don’t feel that bad either. Without a doubt, however, I certainly acted like a douchebag.


When the Game Turns Ugly

Never force someone to be your Dungeon Master if he doesn’t want to. That’s the moral of today’s story.

The secondary moral? That one of my oldest friends, the oft-mentioned Glen, can be a total douchebag.

We were nine, maybe ten years old, and Glen was at my house on a Saturday. I remember it was raining – which was great, because it meant my mom wouldn’t force us to go play outside, and we could watch tv and play Nintendo all we wanted. Or rather, all Glen wanted. I didn’t want to watch tv. I didn’t want to play Nintendo.

I wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons.

This was back in the day of the Rules Cyclopedia, before things got “advanced,” before we heard the term “2nd Edition.” Back when men were men, dwarves were dwarves, and elves were really fighter-mages.

At this stage, it’s worth noting that Glen was – by tradition – “the DM.” Chris and I played, he DM’ed, that was how it went. So I bugged him, and badgered him, and irritated him – at ten years old I could nag and annoy with the very best of my generation – until finally, finally, he relented, threw his hands in the air and huffed “fine! Go get your dice.”

For those who missed out on the “good old days,” there wasn’t a lot of consistent internal logic to the game back then. Every weapon dealt different damage, and weapon proficiencies/specialization didn’t add a standard bonus to attacks and damage – instead dice and bonuses were based on the weapon. Which meant a lot of reference, flipping through books, checking flowcharts and tables, jotting things down, moving on.

Also, we were ten. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division come so naturally to me now that I something forget that once upon a time 1d8+5 was considered a daunting equation. Fucking thac0 didn’t help. Fuck thac0.

So, the punchline is, I’d guess it took me an hour to make my character. A fighter, I think, because I remember having a sword. Just me, by myself, a level one fighter. Wandering through the woods, seeking adventure. We were young, and we considered “fight shit in a dark forest” to be high concept.

Dungeons & Dragons Creature Catalog (1993)
Dungeons & Dragons Creature Catalog (1993)

Now, I don’t recall exactly what it is I encountered. What I do recall is that it had two claw attacks, and a bite, every round. Also? Its claws delivered a paralyzing strike, and its bite carried a deadly poison. I also know that Glen got it out of the Creature Catalog, a fun little book of 150 things to brutally murder your PCs with.

Needless to say, I was brutally murdered. In the first round I think – I remember dying due to a failed saving throw, which suggests poison. So, an hour (or so) to make a character, followed by a minute or three to kill him. My solution? I offered Glen five bucks to let me re-roll the saving throw. He agreed, and I rolled a natural 20.

Glen responded by giving me my five bucks back and telling me that, no, my character was so dead.

Dude. Never force someone to be your Dungeon Master if he doesn’t want to.


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.


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.


The Jazst’s Tombé

So twenty years ago, give or take, I’m standing on the schoolyard with a couple of friends and another friend of ours comes up to us. I’m in second grade at this point, six or seven years old – my birthday’s in October, so I was almost always the last one to “level up”. I say almost because the friend who had just walked up to us all was named Glen, and he had the misfortune to be born on the 30th of December. Meaning when he was young, and giftlust was all-consuming, he was constantly getting gypped by Christmas – and later, when it was all about the drinking, he was constantly being overshadowed by New Year’s.

Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (1991)
Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (1991)

Apologies. I digress. This post is not about how I imagine Glen might have felt about the chronological positioning of his birthday – it is about what he had in his hands as he approached us on the schoolyard, that fateful afternoon. In one hand he held a hardcover book upon the cover of which was a knight riding a white stallion, slicing backward with his sword at a gigantic dragon. On the cover? Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia.

I stand here, two decades later, to tell you that from that moment, right there, when Glen walked up to us holding that book? I can’t speak for the others, but for me? Yeah, it was on. We were not the cool kids. We were not jocks. Fuck football – let’s pretend to be knights, and do math motherfucker! Roll some dice? Butcher some goblins? Fuck yes!

Five or six years later we abandoned the paltry, pathetic, lame, loserfest game of Dungeons & Dragons – for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. We were teenagers by then, with the acne and three-hair mustaches to prove it, but we were still not the cool kids. But fighting dragons with “elves” and “fighters” was so 1980’s. Now we were kicking down the doors as paladins, or dwarven clerics, or half-elf bards.

And then? The shit got real. Glen – who had brought us into the world of D&D and AD&D outdid himself. He got something called “Dark Sun” – a setting to play Dungeons & Dragons in. A scorched world, where the use of magic is itself a rape of the land that leaves the world a wretched husk, where mighty sorcerer-kings rule from thrones built on the blood and bone of their feeble subjects, where the magic is but one pillar of power alongside that of the mind, where every breath may be your last, and where your dying thought will be “water…please…just one drop of water”.

Dark Sun Boxed Set (1991)
Dark Sun Boxed Set (1991)

Paladins? Fuck those do-gooders – there’s no place for mercy or kindness or generosity of spirit in a world where every element, animal and weather pattern is trying to kill you! Elves? No longer the keeper of ancient lore and wisdom – these days they’re a nomadic tribal people, moving swiftly across the desert sands. Bilbo Who? I don’t know about hobbits, but the halflings I know are a savage bunch of cannibals, more likely to eat a stranger than invite him in for tea.

Sometimes the things that shape us defy logic or easily qualification. These days I write. Sometimes even well. Once, even for money. But I write, and though I don’t find the time to write as often as I used to, I remain steadfast in my belief that I will write again – that one day I’ll have a couple hours free, sit down in front of the keyboard, and write write write away.

I’m doing that right now, if you want to get technical.

But the one thing I can’t ever know, but will always suspect? I write because, twenty years ago, Glen came walking up to me (and others, but this isn’t their blog, so fuck them) carrying a copy of Dungeons & Dragons, ready to set spark to my imagination. And if I look back at the work I’m most proud of? Dark Sun, probably more than anything else, influenced it. My love of alternate (read that as non-Tolkien) fantasy began on that squalid, desert-seared planet.

The Dark Sun product line was canceled in 1996. In 2009, Wizards of the Coast (owners of Dungeons & Dragons and Dark Sun) announced that they were bringing Dark Sun back as part of the launch of the 4th edition of the world’s first roleplaying game. Until this past Monday, when he and I crossed paths on MSN, Glen and I had been out of touch for almost four years – ever since he moved to China. But when I saw him online, my path was clear. I didn’t ask him about immersion in foreign culture. I didn’t ask him about his girlfriend I’ve never met or spoken to. I didn’t ask him about teaching (which is what he does). I didn’t even ask when the next time he’d be on this side of the ocean.

What I did was nerd the fuck out with him about the return of Dark Sun for fifty-two straight minutes, at which point he had to go. It was all King Kalak this and wild talents that. He hadn’t even seen the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (which isn’t all that surprising, when you consider just how much a niche product English roleplaying books must be in China).

His and my talk, brief as it was, showed me one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt: we still aren’t the cool kids. And that’s cool.

So here’s my blog, to talk about nerd things – named the City-State of Balic after a city on the planet Athas, also known as Dark Sun. Seems appropriate.