I just got back from Staples with booklets for “The False and the True” and “The True Lesson Learned,” parts two and three respectively of the first chapter of Baldman Games’ living-style 4e Dark Sun game, Ashes of Athas. Once again I’m struck by the quality and depth of the adventure design, replete with maps, custom monsters, and a compelling story that balances role-play with combat very well. Indeed, my quest for these “convention-exclusives” started when I saw this on Critical Hits:
I swear that the Ashes of Athas adventure I just finished forced me to jot down the bathroom schedule for all of the minion guards, and I had to psychoanalyze all the major NPCs from both the Jungian and the Freudian perspectives.
Don’t tease me with multi-dimensional characters and excruciating detail–I will succumb. So I applied to run the first chapter for the local gaming group I organize and, after much anticipation, received the three adventures.
There were three things that struck me as particularly well done in the first adventure, such that in addition to running a fantastic campaign for my gaming group, I was able to see great design principles in action and hopefully learn to apply them to my own sessions in the future.
Every encounter provided for multiple outcomes for the part as a whole, and for individual characters. Early on they could either escape or be captured, and in the fourth encounter their success at gathering materials directly impacted how the B’rohg’s would react. All too often my skill challenges have only pass/fail conditions. Finding the gray areas in-between, and being willing to punish my players for a lackluster performance, would go a long way in my own sessions.
My role-players had multiple opportunities to flex their acting and critical thinking skills, while the slayers had their chance to kick ass and take names as well. I felt there was a good balance of social/puzzle and combat encounters, but the real trick was allowing for them to happen simultaneously.
The pit fights were a prime example, as one or two players could square off against each other in creative combat (we loved the appendix’s list of skills to make their move and minor really count for something, and bring flavor to what would have been a rote back-and-forth of powers), while the rest of the party could bet for the reagents they needed, start shit with the guards, find out more about where Sartaj was being held, etc. And best of all, their success hinged on the pit fighter’s success, making for a cooperative challenge in which everybody can highlight the best of their abilities.
The more skill challenges that combine social and normal combat, especially with a collaborative element, the less downtime and more fun for the party as a whole. That’s plain difficult to pull off, but Baldman Games’ skill at design really shone in that respect.
An extension of the varying degrees of success, players had the chance to win in-game rewards for completing certain optional objectives. Kind of like those obscure achievements in World of Warcraft or Xbox games that we still vie for, winning them requires creativity or skill or both in Ashes of Athas. And the perks are pretty hefty: a mount, theme retraining or augmentation, and the ability to enter a class otherwise unavailable in the Dark Sun universe.
Like the boons and martial practices that have begun to be developed in the supplements and Dragon magazines, “loot” that affects your character makes for an interesting change from the usual gold and magic items. And provides a more lasting benefit, in some cases.
Well-written as it is, there are a few things the Dungeon Master has to account for his- or herself.
On Sunday I ran most of the first part, “The Worth of a Slave.” We got started by 8:15 and wrapped it up at 11:45, but three and a half hours wasn’t enough in this case. One of my six players had never tried a role-playing game before, while two others had no experience with 4e. You can imagine how overwhelmed they were by their powers alone, every other change from 3.5/Pathfinder aside. That pushed the length of the first encounter to over an hour, and had me wishing there were a “Fast & Furious Guide to Teaching 4e on the Fly.” (Recommendations, anyone?)
Looking back, I realize that I could have cut down on the time by cutting Encounter 3 and simply wiping the floor with their bodies with Encounter 2, but it was enough for their safe house to have been infiltrated and a paragon-tier fire elemental burn the building to the ground. It’s a rare group that accepts a TPK with grace, and annihilating a group of newcomers would have left a sour taste in their mouth for the adventure. It was hard enough for them to “willingly” be stripped of their possessions and enter into slavery.
Had I been trying to squeeze the adventure into one night, Encounter 5 looks most definitely to be optional, but given the time it’s worth it to illustrate the humbling peril of the desert to the “high and mighty” adventurers.
I’ll hopefully be finishing up with them before the second part on Sunday, with a few different players at my table for “The False and the True.” I’ll have to keep a better eye on the time, with time apportioned out to each of the encounters.
With 15 minutes give or take to assign as needed.
Secondarily, I found it challenging to convince my players to go after Sartaj when she had been sold into slavery. I wish I’d had a better mechanism to reveal she was still alive (the flavor text described her as atop a pile of bodies), or knew how to raise the stakes so that they felt her more important.
Perhaps I might have Sartaj reach out to communicate with the adventurer’s directly to foreshadow the later encounter. Instead of a primal ritual, she might have dropped her sword (a magic sword! Adventurer’s love that shit!), which the adventurer’s find among the dead in Encounter 2 and take with them. I can easily see her using the sword to “talk” to the adventurers as she expends the last of her magical reserves. After that, the bond expires and the sword becomes mundane again so not to overpower any of the PC’s.
Additionally, I might have planted the seed that Sartaj, a powerful mage and swordswoman, would perhaps know how best to deal with the overpowered Obadias.
Once they were moving about the camp, entering in the pit fighting, betting, and causing general mischief, they were generally enjoying themselves. The Mage, Druid, and Monk took on the more menial tasks almost gladly–it allowed them to role-play and find Sartaj and gather the materials. But in typical player fashion some vehemently resisted being true slaves.
The adventure itself wants to make things difficult for the PC’s: “Avram has sufficient guards for the upcoming voyage. However, PCs can use a variety of skills to convince Avram or one of his assistants that they would be valuable additions. If the PCs fail bluff checks, they are still admitted… and then enslaved.” But I should have let those who signed on as guards stay as guards instead of being tricked (read: beaten) into slavedom. If they’re going to flip an out-of-character shit at the prospect of being disarmed, let them be true guards. Just make it emotionally difficult. I wish I had a skill challenge to throw at those guarding to them face the moral quandary of “disciplining” slaves or helping them when they disobeyed orders.
In short, try to gauge the player’s reaction to slavery and run with it. Different groups have different thresholds of what you can do to their character before they freak out. You just have to be mindful of that.
It takes a skilled Dungeon Master to really showcase everything the adventure has to offer without making some of the mis-steps I did, but I think the adventure has a lot to teach to us newer gamemasters as well. The multiple outcomes for each scene, tangible rewards for overcoming what were significant challenges, and ability to balance different play-styles are what made this adventure stand out, though time restraints and the composition of different groups in terms of experience and maturity are variables that need to be addressed by the judge for each particular table. Barring that, “The Worth of a Slave” was a pleasure to run, and looked to be a great time for the players as well.