The Athasian Game Master
Jon // Oracle, jon[at]athas.org
Want to spice up your campaign? Want your players' characters to feel the stinging heat of the crimson sun? Want your players to see Athas for more than endless dunes of sand? Want to show the gaming community that Dark Sun is unlike all other campaign settings? Good. Welcome to the club!
This article contains various tips and discusses issues to consider for both new and experienced GMs that want to run a Dark Sun campaign.
Athasian brutalityCompared to many other campaign worlds, Dark Sun is a brutal campaign setting. Slavery, abuse, blood sport, theft, and unscrupulous merchants and templars are part of every-day city life. In the wilderness you are never safe from raiders and feral beasts in your hunt for water and survival - even the scarce plant life will try to do you in!
Depending on the age and emotional sensitivity of your players, describe and make your players' characters relate to the harsh environments of Athas in an appropriate manner. Their characters could get mugged, tortured, killed, sold into slavery et.c - adventuring on Athas is no picnic. Be careful not to overdo it though. Use the occasional bad incident to provoke your players' emotions - few things are more cunning and dangerous than a PC bent on revenge!
Be firm, but fairYour players trust you to run games where they have a fair, or at least a certain chance of survival. If you repeatedly mutilate their characters and gloat at doing so, they won't have fun, and while Dark Sun is a challenging game world, it should not be unbeatable.
Sure, you can toss a Dune Reaper, Braxat or other tough creature at a low-level party, but make sure there is a way to escape and live through the encounter. Don't force the PCs into a battle they cannot escape and cannot win, UNLESS they have done something really dumb. Award foolish mistakes with pain (That's the way Athasians raise their children). Anyone foolish enough to mug a templar, pick a fight with a noble or call a half-giant a big, dumb brute face-to-face deserves to get their teeth kicked in or a dagger thrust deep in between their ribs.
The same applies to Death effects. I can't recall a single player who hasn't felt he was cheated when his character has been killed by a Finger of Death or Slay Living Spell, lethal poison, an unseen assassin's death attack, a deadly trap or some other instant death effect where it all comes down to a single roll of the dice. Spare your players from unnecessary death effects - unless they do something to deserve them. Of course, if your players use Death effects to great extent, they can hardly not expect the same treatment from their enemies...
Describe everythingEver read a good fantasy novel - one that "almost came alive" because it was so well written? A good fantasy author writes good descriptions that are augmented by the reader's imagination, creating those fantastic scenes. Here's a secret - a good GM does the same thing and his players' imaginations augment his descriptions.
Visualize a given encounter and try to describe to the best of your ability what you picture inside your head. Ideally your players will picture something similar after hearing your description. Terrains, NPCs and battles should all be described to make your games "come alive".
Make sure your players see more than sand in the desert. For terrain descriptions, the Wanderer's Journal in the original DS Boxed Set and the Wanderer's Chronicle in the Revised DS Boxed Set have good descriptions. A picture says more than a thousand words, though, so check out the "Athasian Photography" section at Ur-Braxa (see Links section). You can find some good illustrations for your terrain descriptions there.
Memorable NPCs are not only the ones who can cleave the skull of a braxat with one blow, but those the PCs interact with and the players visualize well. While the character's actions and a GM's face and voice tells much about a NPC's personality, a good description of the NPC can add a new dimension to the character. Fantasy novels are great for inspiration. Main characters are almost always well described. A novel writer only has descriptions to rely on, while a GM can use his voice and face to supplement them. Combine these elements to make NPCs more memorable!
Although most of you have probably heard this before, battles should *never* be reduced to the static unimaginative form of "19. You hit. 12. The gith missed." Combat is a lot more exciting with descriptions such as: "You crack the gith warrior's helmet open with your axe - leaving a deep red gash in his forehead. The gith staggers a few steps backwards before regaining his balance. He touches his forehead with a long, bony finger and moves it to his mouth, licking it clean of blood. Hissing, he raises his obsidian-tipped spear and leaps forward. Fortunately you manage to throw yourself sideways, and his attack misses you barely." See? You'll have your players on their toes in even the simplest battle. And in Dark Sun, don't leave out any details - If your players have the stomach for it, let them witness limbs being severed in detail; blood sprouts; gutted open abdomens and intestines falling out; eyes being scratched out et.c. There is nothing wrong in turning a battle into a B class action movie if that's how your players like it.
Flavor and game mechanicsFlavor and game mechanics do not match. Be careful when describing combat. For example: If you say an opponent falls on his back as a result of a strong blow, a player will expect appropriate bonuses for striking a prone character. Try to avoid such situations, unless they won't affect the outcome of the battle significantly. This is really up to the individual GM. Personally I don't give out mechanical bonuses as a result of flavor descriptions. Many players, particularly rules-lawyers, don't like it if their characters become subject to a disadvantage at the GM's whim and bypassing normal rules - even if this affects their enemies as well. It adds uncertainty to the game. Players who have invested their feats in combat maneuvers that are mimicked and overridden by a GM's battle descriptions could feel duped and that their feats are worthless. Rather make sure you describe the use of feats specifically and avoid those descriptions when the feats are not used.
It is the little things...What is a +4 cloak of resistance anyway? Without a proper description, it's just that. Give it a color, a pattern and story to go along with it, and presto, you have a unique magical item the players will remember. I recall a player who enthusiastically asked me what color the magical cloak they had found was. I replied black with golden scorpion motives. The player sighed - there was no way his character, Denedorn the Pure could wear such an outfit - it was against his style. Granted, this was not a Dark Sun game, but it is a good example of what flavor can do. Flavor need not only apply to magical and spectacular items though.
A well-described cool non-magical sword could out value a lame, "standard +1" magical sword in the eyes of certain players. What is a small stone-disc pendant except a worthless piece of junk? If it has a story to it, such as it being a token of gratitude from the chieftain of a primitive tribe for helping his tribe defeat a powerful beast that threatened to destroy them all, it becomes a memento and valued item. Another character could have received a near fatal wound in the battle with the beast, and today he bears the scars from that battle, a permanent reminder of the time he was swaying between life and death trying to defend the primitives of the Ch'og tribe. These small details matter and make the game more memorable to both you and the players.
Know the rulesA good GM knows the rules of the system he runs his games in. A number of GMs actually don't need a rules system, but the majority do. To prevent the game from coming to unnecessary halts, be prepared. Read up on rules, spells and monsters you know you're going to use. If you can't remember the specifics of a rule or spell, at least put a post-it note on the page, so you can look it up quickly during the game. A climatic and exciting scene can become a drag hold-out if the GM is unfamiliar with the capabilities of monsters and other NPCs.
Music sets the moodLike a movie has a background soundtrack, a role-playing game session can be enhanced by music. A bad choice of music or music that is unfitting for a given encounter can ruin a good mood, though, so my advice is to listen to all the tracks on a CD and make a track list for various encounters. It's time consuming, but worth it.
Movie soundtracks and certain game soundtracks can make good role-playing music. My favorite Dark Sun background music is the Gladiator soundtrack, which has both climatic combat tracks and slower, moody tracks. The Might and Magic series have actual soundtracks on the play CDs from Might and Magic 7 and onward (MM7 is the best soundtrack in my opinion).
Other computer games, such as Dune 2000, Planescape - Torment, Technomage and Diablo 2 also have great soundtracks, but you need a small program called ACM2WAV to convert the music files to wav. format, so you can play them.
Historical aidsIf you want inspiration to elaborate on the existing Athasian cultures, you need not look farther than into our own history. Clearly, Denning and Brown were inspired by some of our early Earth cultures when they wrote the Dark Sun Campaign Setting. Urik, for instance, has a definite Assyrian/Babylonian feel to it. One of Babylon's kings was named Hammurabi, which bears a close resemblance to Hamanu - the king of Urik. Hammurabi was famous for his great book of laws, and who else has a law for every citizen in his city than Hamanu? A local library or encyclopedia, not to mention the internet, can be a great resource for those seeking to expand their cultural horizons and at the same time find material to add to their games.
That's it for now. An article such as this one could go on and on forever, but all good things must come to an end. I hope I've inspired you or given you some good ideas. Good luck with your Dark Sun campaigns!