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Fun in the Sun

This is the first of a series of reposted blog articles from designers of Dark Sun 4th edition. These articles have been scattered through various reorganizations on Wizards' site, and are now hard to find, or have vanished completely. We are collecting them here with permission from the authors.

This article was originally posted by Rodney Thompson, September 14, 2009. You can find the original here.

This past weekend was a local gaming event known as GwenCon, hosted by Gwendolen Kestrel and her husband (my friend and co-worker) Andy Collins at their awesome home, Tindalos House. At this convention, it's customary to run some games that are just a little bit off of the norm, something you wouldn't normally play or run. Sure, some people run just straight up D&D, but it's also a chance to playtest your homebrew houserules, or run another game system you wouldn't normally run. Two years ago, I ran a Mutants & Masterminds adventure set in the Paragons setting. Last year, I ran a Marvel Super Heroes game using a heavily kitbashed 4th Edition D&D system. This year, I decided to go for something a little less prep-intensive, and I ran D&D 4th Edition; more specifically, I ran a Dark Sun adventure.

First, I knew that, since it was a convention where I'd likely have players who weren't WotC employees, I couldn't include any material from the upcoming Dark Sun campaign setting (which made me sad as lead developer, but there are plenty of other opportunities for playtesting). So, that meant building the PCs in the character builder (no problem, too easy Drill Sergeant), and then building the monsters myself by hand. Since I wanted this to be a low-effort adventure prep, I turned to our newest Adventure Tool, the monster builder.

I want to take a moment and say that if you're a GM and you're not using the monster builder, go download it right now. It's fantastic, and I used it to build all but two of the monster stat blocks I used in my GwenCon adventure. For example, I had some snake statues that were going to come to life and attack the PCs. I opened up the monster builder, started with the iron cobra base, changed its role, deleted a power, and then I went and found the gargoyle entry and stole its turn-into-a-statue power and dropped that onto the monster I was building. In less than five minutes I had a monster that was, effectively, all-new, did exactly what I needed it to do, and had all the right numbers. Monster builder can't tell you how to balance a monster, but it can get you 90% of the way there. I say this not as a corporate shill, but as a DM who just built somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 complete monster stat blocks in a matter of days: this thing makes my life as a DM vastly easier, especially since I tend to be one who likes to surprise his gaming group (tough to do when your gaming group is full of people that work on D&D for a living).

So I ran two sessions of the Dark Sun adventure (titled In the Service of the Shadow King) at GwenCon, and then my Monday night game requested that I run it for them, so three times through the adventure so far. The interesting thing to watch is how differently the same adventure has gone for all three groups. I put a few decision points in the adventure, which, as all convention games are, is a bit linear. Watching the players in all the groups approach those decision points, and then all choose relatively different directions, has been fascinating. At one point, the heroes have a choice between three NPCs, and have to choose to side with one of those three before advancing in the adventure. Two groups chose the same path, but the first group of the weekend chose a different one. I'm rereading the adventure now to see whether or not it was coincidence, or just the way it was set up that encouraged them to ignore the third option.

The basic premise of the adventure was that the heroes all have certain secrets that they are keeping from the Shadow King, the ruler of the city-state of Nibenay. The PCs received a missive from one of the Shadow King's templars threatening to reveal their secrets to the sorcerer-king if they did not do as she said. The PCs meet up with the templar and then journey in the company of an elf tribe deep into the deserts of the Ivory Triangle. Eventually, they make their way into the abandoned ruins of an ancient city-state, and must retrieve their riches from the palace of the city's long-dead sorcerer-king. However, they must do so and get out before dark, because if the sun falls on them in the city then the undead that haunt its shadows will come out to feast upon them. Along the way, the PCs face being stranded in the open desert, dealing with carnivorous plants, choosing whether to obey their defiler templar or to side with a conniving elf scout, and taste the bitterness of betrayal during a moment of triumph.

I built all of the PCs myself, and was able to account for their different feats and abilities in the adventure too. I build a human psion who was a young noblemen dabbling in rebellion against Nibenay, a half-elf bard (with lots of poisoner feats from Rob Schwalb's assassin article on DDI) who was a member of the Veiled Alliance, an elf rogue, a dwarf warden/barbarian hybrid that was a secret spy from Gulg, a human warlord (an officer in Nibenay's army considering desertion), and a half-giant fighter (built using the goliath as a stand-in) who was a slave gladiator that was bought, and freed, by the noble psion. For my Monday night group, I also created an elf assassin (using the new rules from this month's Dragon), which was a great hit. It's also been fun to see groups with different composition approaching the same adventure, and how different skill sets were used to deal with different problems.

If I had only one disappointment, it is that only two people (both from my Monday night game) fell into my silt pit trap. Man, that thing was rough. OK, two disappointments: no one got turned into a statue by stonewalker spirits, either.

Anyways, it proved to be three great sessions that really were a lot of fun, and didn't require as much prep work as I thought it would. One thing I really liked is that, even with no one from the divine power source, the party never felt disadvantaged once. I know some people don't like the roles system, but it 100% directly leads to the fact that you can ignore entire power sources if you wish when designing your campaign world. No divine magic? No problem.


Rodney Thompson

Rodney is a designer and developer for Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the designers of 4th Edition Dark Sun, and co-designed of Lords of Waterdeep and its expansion, Scoundrels of Skullport. He has won both ENnie and Origins Awards for his work.