Dark Sun… for many, this brings back memories of cheesy characters with ridiculous stats, bizarre races and psionics.
Not for me.
When I bought my copy, back in 1991, it was an epiphany for me. Finally, I got my hands on something other than a Tolkien-esque setting: elves and Dwarves with a complete twist. The environment was one of the most challenging elements of the setting. Creatures and god-like things not designed to be defeated were presented. Evil being a part of the setting, but that could be used and negotiated with. Resources and commodities were at a premium. Really, I fell in love. Different. Unique.
Unfortunately, I was the only one in my group who did… The others weren’t into it as much as I was, and though I wanted to run more, the game quickly ended.
I made a brief foray into it using the 3e Athas.org project, but again, the game didn’t last because some guys did not like the game.
After I abandoned 4e, I saw with mixed feelings that they were coming out with a Dark Sun update for 4e.
Someone let me know that "some guys" were doing a Dark Sun Organized Play campaign. I was surprised, intrigued, happy and sad at the same time. Still I wanted to know more about the OP, so I lurked around some forums and groups to learn more. After a while, when I decided to do these interviews, AoA was on my list. I HAD to know more.
Yes, and this time, it’s personal!
So I contacted the Campaign leadership for Ashes of Athas and conducted the following interview with Teos Abadia and Chad Brown. Okay, I won't say but I've been sitting on this interview for a long time (well over two months), procrastination, you suck. But finally, here is it... Consider it an early Christmas gift!
JP: Can you give us your RPG-Pedigree?
TA: I began gaming with the purple boxed set, but became serious in the 6th grade with AD&D in 1983. Once I hit high school I was primarily a DM. In 2000 I began to travel a lot for work; the Living Greyhawk campaign allowed me to play and DM without a regular home game. I quickly fell for the way a living campaign allows everyone to be part of a very large communal experience and to shape a campaign. I wrote a few scenarios for LG and then for LFR (Living Forgotten Realms). I have played and DMed for Living Spycraft, Living Arcanis, Shadowrun Missions, and Heroes of Rokugan (Legend of the Five Rings). I had sworn to never become a living campaign admin because I was well aware of the effort required. When I was asked to be a part of the Ashes of Athas organized play campaign I made an exception. I have always loved that world (at one point I moderated the Dark Sun listserver in the 90s!). Part of who I am is my attempt to try to be a voice for reason on forums, to help players understand the history of our hobby, and to help bring in new players.
CB: I started playing regularly in college, with 2e (i.e. AD&D 2nd Edition) in 1990. I started DMing with the first Dark Sun box set in '91. I got into organized play at GenCon '97, with things like NASCRAG and Living City, and started LG with the launch in 2000. In between, I played/DMed basically everything I could find, including a bunch of Rifts, RoleMaster, and various White Wolf pieces tossed together.
In the time between AD&D 2.5 (perhaps better known as `Skills and Powers, etc.') and the 3e launch, I worked on several LARPs, including one that I owned and ran; I wrote a couple table-top RPG systems of my own during this time, which turned out to have been based on d20, but before it existed. Starting around year 3 of Living Greyhawk, I become more heavily involved with the campaign, and worked on several adventures before joining the Bissel Triad. Also, I helped burn down Lopolla, and I'm not sorry. :-)
JP: (Interrupting) We are all grateful for that!
CB: In 2006, I climbed in the jeep and `Headed West', leaving behind (in good homes!) about 35 linear feet of RPG materials, keeping the 15 feet I couldn't give up. Since settling in Seattle, I played and judged through the early years of LFR. I went back behind the scenes in year 3 (again), writing LFR's first epic-level adventure before diving into Ashes of Athas. At this point, I've had 2 pieces published in Dragon, and one coming up in Dungeon.
TA: Like chad, I've started to see a bit of my work in both Dragon and Dungeon. It is really exciting! And, I'm jazzed to see so many people involved in D&D organized play end up writing for the magazines lately, creating D&D Encounters, and writing Lair Assault. I think that like Paizo, WotC is seeing that organized play is a good place to find authors.
JP: What draws you to 4e? What particularly attracts you to that game?
TA: I was really reluctant to create for LG because of how complex encounter and monster design was in third edition. I love the initial simplicity and ease of 4E and then how you can continuously work to improve an understanding of what makes encounters really shine. Many admire the potential 4E has for great heroism and tactics, but those aspects also help make it a great role-playing and story-heavy game. One of the greatest shames is that the writing style of initial 4E really prevented people (especially established players) from seeing that. I myself did not enjoy my first few times with 4E. I do greatly like the way Essentials has been written. I love the current WotC writing style and how it communicates the game to new players.
CB: In general, I find that 4e gets out of my way when I want to focus on the narrative, and provides enough crunch when I want to get tactical. I guess I'm the contra-positive of Teos on this one - one of my frequent contributions to LG adventures was building monsters and encounter stat blocks. I once ran a home game where the PCs started off as 0-level commoners (using the standard (not elite) array), but leveled (almost) every session, ending up as 20/20 gestalt characters facing off against a three-headed Tarrasque. I've seen - and used - most every trick, technique, and broken loophole in 3.0/3.5 (non-associated class levels!). After DMing 4e, I just can't go back - to me, the overhead isn't worth it.
JP: What is your favorite RPG game of all times? Your favorite supplement/ adventure?
TA: I love many RPGs (especially Spycraft, L5R, Eclipse Phase, and Shadowrun), but I always come back to D&D. The Desert of Desolation series is my overall favorite classic due to the great traps and puzzles within a really striking setting. Temple of Elemental Evil is my favorite dungeon crawl because of the factions and great town interactions. I have wonderful memories of my times playing LG (especially Eric Menge's first fey series in Geoff where he and his team really knew how to tell a story and make you care - I've ran a table where everyone had watery eyes and some just openly cried). Outside of D&D I've always loved the style of the Shadowrun supplements; you can't read one without feeling the setting. My favorite Dark Sun supplement is Veiled Alliance, for how it adds culture and flavor to the city-states.
CB: I'll start by dodging the question slightly: to me, truly great RPGs are about the experiences they create, not the manipulation of the engine. To borrow an analogy, I tend to see RPGs more as ingredients than dishes, and I always try to combine them to create new, interesting, and sometimes even tasty meals.
That said, D&D is still the game I always come back to, sooner or later; I've had really great experiences in every edition. I've also had a really good time with Rifts, Trinity, Exalted, Shadowrun, and Dogs in the Vineyard, and I'm really looking forward to Leverage (a recent purchase).
TA: Good points on the experience mattering more than the engine. One of the things I like about working on organized play is trying to influence that truth. We try to make increase the chances that the experience will be memorable regardless of the other people at your table... a very difficult task!
JP: What are the high points of a home game you run? What elements do you particularly enjoy in a campaign?
TA: My high points come from my players. These days my home games try to provide a great story while also becoming the story of the PCs, as created by them. That interaction is what I most love. When a player makes a choice and it becomes central to the story... when they have a strong reaction to what unfolds as a result of their character and choices... that really makes me happy.
CB: I don't think I can add anything to what Teos said there.
JP: What would you say are elements that define your writing style? What elements would I expect to find in one of your adventures?
TA: Auras, crazy terrain, and a near TPK. Ha! Okay, that was for my friends. In truth, I hope that the work I do is strong on setting, tone, and story. I hope gamers always feel they get a great story and role-playing. I also try to create fun combats where they do something they haven't done before. I borrow and steal from many mentors to try to accomplish those goals.
CB: When I'm writing, I try to figure out an outline of a story, and then build structures that help the DM fill that story. As Teos can attest, I tend to write very open-ended and complex, and then rein it in.
TA: You should see what Chad can do on a short time-frame! Absolutely incredible. And I really bow to his and Dave Kay's work on the first LFR Epic adventure. I think it should have won an Ennie! (And don't get me started on how I want the Ennies to have an organized play category...)
JP: How did you become involved with Baldman Games? Why?
TA: I've been a judge for Dave Christ for many years. I suspect that mutual respect, some kind words from friends, and my blog series on Dark Sun led to him asking me to join the Ashes of Athas admin team. I am humbled by that, because he knows many great/better gamers.
CB: I've also been judging for Dave for a while, and I had made some efforts to start a roughly similar campaign when the Dark Sun release first came out.
JP: What is your favorite D&D Campaign setting?
TA: Dark Sun has long been my favorite setting, with Greyhawk after that. Outside of D&D it has to be Shadowrun, with Rokugan after that.
CB: I started DMing with Dark Sun, so it (unsurprisingly) has a special place in my heart. I was also a big Planescape fan, primarily because of the writing. I enjoyed Dragonlance as a `world', but I have reservations about it as a game setting.
JP: I remember when I bought my Dark Sun box it was a nice day and I stayed in the car to go through the content. I was amazed at the diversity and uniqueness of everything in that box. Even the old classics like elves and dwarves were completely redesigned with new goals, focus and goals. It was the first setting I saw that really threw everything out the window design-wise. When did you first encounter Dark Sun?
TA: I read the back of the first boxed set and assumed it was a game for munchkins. I refused to run it, so my college group bought it for me. I soon realized how wrong I was. I fondly recall feeling that this was the first truly different setting. It was D&D upside down, inside out, devastated and heightened. I loved how those changes made for great stories.
CB: The first DS box set came out just when I was deciding to run a game, so I picked it up to see what they'd done. I was a poor college student at the time, and it was an investment. I was really taken by how they had shaped and re-shaped everything, making it fit the world they were creating, rather than molding the world to fit the expectations.
JP: Okay… I admitted I love the setting, still do. It’s just so out there. But after reading Troy Denning’s Prism Pentad I was incensed and annoyed that they went ahead and destroyed the world. That’s why the Dark Sun 2nd edition box came out with additional resources. Did Dark Sun suffer a Spellplague, like Forgotten Realms did when it moved to 4e? How did the setting change from the 2e era to this latest edition?
TA: You aren't alone. Wizards designers felt the same way. For 4E they rebooted back to the moments after Sorcerer-King Kalak is killed. The novels are now just one way things can pan out. I think that was a really good choice. You can borrow from all that old material while still preserving the core aspects (such as retaining all the sorcerer-kings and the feeling of hopelessness) that really define Dark Sun.
CB: I'll add only that I really enjoyed the novels for adding life and spark to the world, but that you're all correct about the Prism Pentad's place in the game world. I ignored it for my first game (in '91), doing more or less exactly what Wizards did with Dark Sun 4e.
JP: In DS, arcane magic is derived from plant life. Some wizards can do so without damaging the flora – called preservers. While others – called defilers – destroy plant life to cast spells. That to me, was one of the most innovating idea they came up with. In 2e, the two were separate classes. In 3e this was done by a lure of power for arcane casters. How is that in 4e?
TA: I too have fond memories of defiling and preserving. But, in most AD&D games it did not have a really clear mechanic (you just leveled faster) nor a way to mix in story aspects. No edition has captured what Sadira's choices in the Prism Pentad were about. 4E has a more balanced approach where an at-will power represents defiling. You get to re-roll a missed daily and hurt your companions. Paragon Paths and other elements build upon that. It isn't particularly satisfying, but I don't see it as worse than with AD&D or the 3E magazine or fan version. Design-wise this is a very tough element and none of the 4E fan-created options have satisfied me (nor anyone else, from what I can see).
CB: I'll add to to Teos' comments only that defiling mostly worked in my games primarily because nobody was ever willing to do it. The dire consequences and story `weight' of defiling worked only a wholly narrative level. I do wish for a better defiling system for AoA. We've talked it over a few times, but haven't found quite what we want just yet - but the story hasn't pushed very hard in that direction, yet.
JP: How much inspiration/ plot links/ story lines/ cameos do you draw from published sources?
TA: In AoA we try to always borrow from canon and we want to reward those that know the setting, but we also are free to change canon. We have seen the death of an important figure and we have changed organizations a bit. Rikus could show up, sure, though our emphasis is on your story. Powerful NPCs tend to overshadow characters, so we will use them sparingly.
CB: While we always try (perhaps too hard) to always go back to the flavor of the setting, our `fanboy rating' is moderate to light, I'd say. For example, the Heartwood Spear made an appearance, and we talked around that quite a lot. My instincts (both from my own campaigns in Athas, and from my days in LG) is to avoid the big names by default, because it's really much easier to do it badly than it is to do it well. In talking to authors, I call this the ``We met Drizzt, so I beat him up and took his stuff.'' problem. It might also be the ``We met Drizzt, and he kicked our asses and took our stuff.'' problem -- neither is likely to be good for the game. That said, one of the best things about AoA (in my opinion) is that we can push the LG/LFR-style boundaries of player and DM expectations. There are things that I wouldn't try in an LG or LFR adventure that I think we can do - and do well - in AoA.
JP: What is your official title in the campaign?
TA: I am an administrator for the Ashes of Athas campaign.
CB: Me too! We debated some in-world titles, but haven't implemented them yet. I theorize it's because everyone wants to be Dregoth and no one wants to be Tectuktitlay.
TA: My favorite Sorcerer-King (Queen) is actually Abalach-Re!
JP: What time frame is AoA set in? [before/after Prism Pentad]
TA: A few months after Kalak's death and the first book of the Prism Pentad (same as the 4E baseline).
CB: We discussed some options, but we really wanted to start with the barriers to entry as low as possible. We started the PCs in Tyr, as members or affiliates of the Veiled Alliance, shortly after the disappearance of Kalak. This means that old Dark Sun fans have a good idea what to expect, while new people can find their footing quickly, just by reading the Dark Sun Campaign Setting.
JP: What would you tell those out there about Ashes of Athas? TA/
CB: Our blurb has been: Ashes of Athas is a continuing 4e D&D campaign by Baldman Games set in the Dark Sun campaign setting. Chapters of three linked adventures are offered at major gaming conventions. Each adventure continues the story, beginning with your character being asked to aid a secretive faction of the Veiled Alliance against an unknown assailant. PCs take up the mantle of heroism in a grim desert world where simple survival cannot be taken for granted. As a central character in the story, you have an opportunity to shape that future while you grow in power and prestige.
JP: Why is your campaign the best there is?
TA: We don't aim to be the best. Our goal has been to provide a great play experience, be story-heavy, and to experiment with fun RP and encounter design to further what is available from OP and 4E. In my mind, the typical Ashes of Athas player also likes at least one other organized play campaign. We aren't afraid to take chances and make mistakes - we are a campaign that can afford to do so.
CB: One of the great things about AoA is that we're not worried about the `random weekly session' like an LFR-style campaign; we offer a periodic chunk of (hopefully) highly-concentrated, story-oriented game. We don't worry about `filling the schedule'; we worry about having enough time to cram in all the story in a way that makes sense and is fun. Sticking with one story means that we don't have to do `Star Trek Episode' resets every adventure; when it makes sense to change the world, we change the world.
Another nice perk: our adventures are (mostly) going to be run by experienced, invested, and quality `RPGA-style' judges. Since our adventures are story-focused, and there are relatively few of them, we can (and do) create adventures that say things like ``At the end of this encounter, the adventurers should have learned X, and might have done Y or Z. If your table comes up with a different way of getting there than what's written here, that's great!'' Just taking the straightjacket off of the judge makes a big difference, and you hear it in the stories of AoA players: "We did this crazy thing…".
More next time, you won't want to miss it.