Excerpts Archive | 8/6/2010
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Atlas of Athas: Running a Dark Sun Game
Dark Sun Excerpts

Athas is a barren and savage world where mere survival is a challenge. This land of oppressive cities and harsh wilderness offers few refuges from strife and suffering. Monsters of every shape and size lurk amid the sands, preying on anything that moves.

In this realm, true champions are needed—heroes whose spirit is unbowed by endless wastelands and brutal tyranny. These warriors meet challenges with courage and cleverness, their measure determined by the foes and circumstances they strive against. These worthy souls are your player characters -- and today's Dark Sun Campaign Setting excerpt looks at running games and appropriate rewards for these characters.

Your job as Dungeon Master is to stage a world that evokes desperation, lost possibilities, and devastation in equal measure with barbaric splendor and wild beauty. Your players should feel tested at all turns by a world where only the strongest and most determined can triumph. On the other hand, hammering them with unwinnable battles or unrelieved misery is a death knell for your game. Your goal is to establish that Athas is an extraordinarily challenging world—and therefore requires great heroes—while keeping the hope of triumph alive.

"The Tablelands are replete with ruins. Decaying towers rise from sandy wastes. Abandoned fortresses loom over stony barrens. Long-lost dungeons lie hidden in badland labyrinths. Sometimes, a vicious creature or brutish monster lairs within, eager to make a meal of the unwary traveler. Once in a while, a priceless treasure is sheltered in the remains. Only the bold and adventurous know for certain."
—The Wanderer’s Journal

Your job as Dungeon Master is to stage a world that evokes desperation, lost possibilities, and devastation in equal measure with barbaric splendor and wild beauty. Your players should feel tested at all turns by a world where only the strongest and most determined can triumph. On the other hand, hammering them with unwinnable battles or unrelieved misery is a death knell for your game. Your goal is to establish that Athas is an extraordinarily challenging world—and therefore requires great heroes—while keeping the hope of triumph alive.

To that end, Chapter 6 of the Dark Sun Campaign Guide contains the following sections:

  • Adventure Creation: This advice discusses adventure themes particularly suited to Athas.
  • Travel and Survival: A variety of tools can aid Dungeon Masters in adjudicating overland travel and survival challenges on Athas.
  • Encounter Building: Guidelines for setting up arena and wilderness encounters are followed by sample skill challenges, all ideal for Athas.
  • Treasure and Rewards: A discussion of fixed enhancement bonuses and alternative treasure specific to the world.
  • Sand Raiders: This three-encounter adventure for 1st-level characters serves as a quick and easy setting introduction for your players.

Treasure and Rewards

Many features of the Dark Sun setting make it unique. One of the most prominent is society’s concentration on the present. People of Athas do not remember. They do not look back through history’s veil to recall better days and dimmer threats. Records about peoples, places, or cultures other than those currently dominating a given region are not kept. The reason is simple: Sorcerer-kings rule as immortals. As far as the people know, sorcerer-kings have always been and always will be. This deception keeps the populace from imagining any other way of life.

In the course of maintaining their power, the tyrants seek out historical records and artifacts, plundering anything that adds to their personal power and destroying everything else. Over the centuries, Athas’s rulers have purged the world of knowledge about the time before their rule and how they came to power. In a land stripped of its history and artifacts, heroes have few opportunities to pluck cherished prizes from dusty ruins.

The historical barrenness of Athas is exacerbated by its general resource-poor nature. As a result, adventurers cannot hoard wealth and accumulate magic items as they might in another setting. The valued accoutrements simply do not exist. Of course, this background can be ignored, and treasure parcels can be doled out according to the standard model in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. A campaign on Athas takes on a different dimension, however, when alternative rewards are seeded into the treasure parcels characters gain. To enhance the setting’s unique qualities, consider adapting treasure distribution according to the following guidelines.

Alternative Rewards

Magic items are less common on Athas than in other Dungeon & Dragons worlds. T o represent this difference, you can use alternative rewards to replace some of the magic items the characters would ordinarily find during their adventures. After five levels or so (at your discretion), an alternative reward might fade away or improve to reflect each hero’s growing power or a new development in the campaign.

Coinage in most Dungeons & Dragons games is hoarded to acquire or create additional magic items. Given the scarcity of magic items on Athas, characters have few opportunities to invest their wealth in this way. As a result, heroes spend more heavily on vehicles, mounts, alchemical items, consumable items, and ritual components. Eventually, characters run out of items to purchase with their treasure. Rather than let the gold pile up, consider substituting other rewards for monetary parcels, as detailed below.

An alternative reward might rely on a story component that must be fulfilled before the reward can be gained. These story components could function as minor quests, be tied to a major quest, or be gained at the start of a new adventure. Qualifying for a training reward might require finding a mentor and convincing him or her to impart some secret knowledge. A sorcerer-king might grant a character a potent boon for performing a service. Primal spirits could convey their wisdom to a vigilant protector. Locations can even impart a particular reward to a worthy or clever champion. The rewards discussed below are tailored specifically to Athas. You can devise other alternative rewards based on the magical properties of the items from your players’ wish lists.

For more advice on using rewards other than money and magic items, see the “Alternative Rewards” section on page 136 of Dungeon Master’s Guide 2.


The movers and shakers on Athas are corrupt and wicked tyrants. Even the worst of them, however, understand the value of awarding favors or repaying debts. A sorcerer-king might favor a party that stymies or undermines a hated rival. A noble could sponsor adventurers who regularly advance his or her interests during their activities.

For the most part, favors provide no game mechanic benefit. They can, however, open the way to sumptuous living conditions, ample water supplies, contact with powerful figures, or access to rituals. An adventurer takes on challenges with greater confidence when a powerful sponsor offers to restore his or her life at little or no cost.

The easiest way to handle a favor is to assign it a gold piece value. You can reward a favor from a particular individual or faction in place of one or more monetary parcels during a level. In essence, the characters build up credit with those who grant them favor, and they can “spend” that favor by calling upon that individual or faction for resources.

Once a group of characters has gained favor with an individual or a faction, the characters can call on that sponsor as long as they are in the right location and the event is appropriate for the storyline. For example, the support of the Veiled Alliance is more easily taken advantage of in a city-state than while visiting an isolated fort belonging to a merchant house. You determine the amount of time it takes to obtain the favor requested, ranging from immediately to hours or days.

Each time the characters call in a favor, deduct the cost of those requests from the overall value of the favor. Tangible requests such as mounts, ritual ingredients, and ritual scrolls reduce the group’s “favor account” according to their normal price.

A favor reward can be used to obtain objects or services (such as having a ritual performed on the party’s behalf ). Certain benefactors might be limited in their ability to grant specific requests, however. For example, favor with a noble could be exchanged for supplies, mounts, vehicles, shelter, bribes for templars, and specialized training. Favor with a templar, on the other hand, might instead be exchanged for rituals, psionic boons, or magic items that had been confiscated as contraband.

Intangible Favor: Sometimes, heroes seek to call on favor in exchange for less tangible benefit. An introduction to a renowned master, access to a restricted area in the middle of the night, or being assigned a weak first opponent in a series of gladiatorial events are examples of intangible benefits. Favors of this sort are not easy to assign monetary values to, but sometimes a good approximation is possible. For example, a party seeking answers to certain questions might be required to reduce the value of its favor reward by 400 gp (the component cost for the Consult Mystic Sages ritual). If no suitable approximation presents itself, deduct 5–10 percent of the party’s overall favor reward for a request you consider minor and 20 percent or more one you consider major.

Arena Glory Favor: The arena is the warrior’s crucible. Before massive crowds, gladiators fight and die for the people’s pleasure. Anyone can survive a match as a matter of sheer luck. Those combatants who survive several matches are special—their skill, talent, and determination do not go unnoticed. Characters who make regular appearances in the arena rise from anonymity as they emerge victorious time and again.

Characters can acquire glory by winning an arena match. Sometimes being alive at the end is sufficient, but most times the heroes must achieve more in the way of victory conditions. When a party achieves arena glory, it gains favor with the people of the citystate. Even those denizens who do not attend the matches come to know the characters’ reputations. City folk are more likely to give aid to popular gladiators, allowing the characters to reap the rewards of their spreading fame.

Arena glory favor can be spent to obtain goods, items, or legitimate services, such as shelter and sustenance, throughout the region controlled by the local city-state. Arena glory can also be used to buy glory boons.

Sorcerer-King’s Boon

The sorcerer-kings favor characters who serve them well. The most valued champions gain boons that supplement their talents and protect them from ambitious rivals. Such blessings are never given lightly and can be taken away at the tyrant’s whim.

Abalach-Re’s Deception
Level 8+
The Grand Vizier’s hold on Raam might be tenuous, but only fools mistake the instability for weakness.
Lvl 8 3,400 gp
Lvl 18 85,000 gp
Lvl 28 2,125,000 gp
Sorcerer-King’s Boon
Power (DailyFear): Minor Action. Each creature adjacent to you takes a −2 penalty to attack rolls until the end of its next turn.
Power (DailyTeleportation): Immediate Interrupt.
Trigger: An enemy hits you with an attack. Effect: You swap positions with one ally within 3 squares, and the ally is hit by the triggering attack.
Level 18: You swap positions with an ally within 5 squares, and you and the ally gain a +1 bonus to all defenses until the start of your next turn.
Level 28: You swap positions with an ally within 10 squares, and you and the ally gain a +2 bonus to all defenses until the start of your next turn.

Sandstorm Weapon
Level 8+
The dust trailing from this weapon explodes in a scouring storm when you land a telling blow on an enemy.
Lvl 8 +2 3,400 gp
Lvl 13 +3 17,000 gp
Lvl 18 +4 85,000 gp
Lvl 23 +5 425,000 gp
Lvl 28 +6 2,125,000 gp
Weapon: Any
Enhancement: Attack rolls and damage rolls
Critical: The target is blinded and takes ongoing damage equal to twice the weapon’s enhancement bonus (save ends both).
Property: Whenever you reduce an enemy to 0 hit points using this weapon, you gain concealment until the end of your next turn.
Power (DailyZone): Free Action. Trigger: You hit an enemy with this weapon. Effect: The attack creates a zone in a close burst 2 centered on that enemy. All squares within the zone are heavily obscured to your enemies until the end of the encounter or until you dismiss the zone as a free action.

Scorpion Mandible Helm
Level 16
Fashioned using the mouth parts of a giant scorpion, this tremor-sensitive helm expands your awareness.
Item Slot: Head 45,000 gp
Property: You perceive creatures and objects adjacent to you that are in contact with the ground or the same substance (such as silt or a web) as if you had line of sight, without needing to make a Perception check.
Power (Daily): Minor Action. Until the end of your next turn, you gain the benefit of this helm’s property for creatures and objects within 10 squares.

Monday: "Terrible sounds are carried across the Athasian plains, but perhaps the most insidious is the jingling of small bells—the work of belgoi."

Excerpt Schedule

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July 9

Creatures: Belgoi

July 13

Sorcerer-King: Lalali-Puy

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