The West Marches of the Dark Sun

July 14, 2018

Even though I am enjoying running Night’s Black Agents in the Third Horizon of Coriolis, I can’t help but cast my thoughts to what kind of campaign I will run next. There are a few ideas that my imagination keeps returning to:

  1. West Marches hex crawl.
  2. The Dark Sun setting first published by TSR for AD&D.
  3. The layered worlds of the city of Alikand from Max Gladstone’s novel The Ruin of Angels, part of the craft sequence.
TombofAnnihilation_Chult_Player

Player’s map of Chult, by Mike Schley, from Tomb of Annihilation.

The West Marches…

The West Marches approach is attractive because of the difficulty I have had over the last couple of years in being able to reliably schedule a game when work, illness and other life commitments crop up. It is not that we don’t want to game, its just been getting harder to get myself and 4+ players together, especially with the travel commitments my current job has. There is also an element of nostalgia for a type of exploration play I have not really done since the 1980s when mucking around with D&D module X1 The Isle of Dread. Key elements that were important to the original West Marches campaign include:

1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.

2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.

3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.

This stack exchange post expands on the implications are bit further:

  1. Sessions begin and end at the home base.
  2. The players decide where they are going before the session starts.
  3. Session reports are shared.
  4. The world map is shared, and may be unreliable.
  5. Competition between players is encouraged.
  6. Content is loosely tiered – distance from base rather than depth in the megadungeon.

I think one of the key points here, is that a chunk of the campaign work which is usually done by the GM, needs to be done by the players. The players also need to be a bit focused on their goals. For the GM, the key task will be in keeping the session self-contained, rather than ending with a cliffhanger or submerged in a mire. This means three clue mysteries and five room dungeons, not the Mines of Moria or the Masks of Nyarlathotep. There is still a lot of work for the GM to do in terms of fleshing out what each hex of the hex crawl actually contains.

System wise, I think the game engine needs to be simple so it has fast procedural resolution, and not require the PCs to be interlocking in an unchangeable way. A lightweight version of d100 or an OSR system would be a good fit. If I were being bold, I might try Conan 2d20.

Then there is the issue of getting a pool of 10+ players interested in the concept and able to tolerate the metagame elements (e.g. not getting invited on an expedition you wanted to do, missing out on your chance to secure the Head of Vecna), as I do not have strong ties to as many gamers as I did back in my university days.

DarkSun.Dragon

…of the Dark Sun

As much as I like the idea of Dark Sun, I have to confess to never having played it. When it was first released I did not have the money to buy it, and later on I was simply not interested in running an AD&D game. But the mix of godless post-apocalyptic fantasy, planetary romance, swords and sorcery, and the Dark Sun twist on magic causing environmental pollution is a blend I keep coming back to. There is just something about a devastated landscape, where civilisation survives in a small number of oppressive city-states ruled by immortal sorcerer-kings (and Queens), that appeals to me. Unlike other D&D settings, psionic powers were common. It also had subversions of the usual fantasy race cliches: halflings were cannibals, dwarves were (usually) slaves, and elves were desert raiders. One criticism it had back in the day was the meta-plot focus on the ascension plans of the sorcerer’s. A feature of the setting, is that a lot of the choices are bad, and PCs are more likely to be amoral and survival focused as opposed to lawful good do-gooders.

So I think the challenges in the setting from a design point of view are:

  1. What do the PCs do in a setting, where tyranny can be found on every street corner, and points of light are few and far between?
  2. What is the price of magic?
  3. How grimdark will the setting will be?
  4. How to handle psionic powers for the PCs, and how are these psychic powers different from magic?

One potential answer for (1) is to have the PCs as specialists in salvaging useful stuff from the wastelands. For example, if the cities have surviving magitek from the lost Golden Age, then people who can find spare parts and batteries, have a socially useful role, and as a game you can follow dungeon crawl procedures and have a good time. Some kind of Vril technology or similar also fits within the planetary romance genre, and for one city state to have a monopoly on flying machines would make them a powerful foe. Another answer is to have the PCs as agents of resistance groups struggling to make the world a better place, which is a hard job when the reigning tyrants oppose change – the KGB and Gestapo never had access to telepathy and Charm Person spells.

I have a few answers for (2). One is to adapt the “defiling” magic of Dark Sun and diversify it a little, but staying within a general theory of magical power being derived from bleeding off the energy created by rapidly accelerating entropy. So you have “Rot Mages” who accelerate decay of vegetation, “Blight Mages” who cause cancer and disease in living creatures, “Coin Mages” who cause metal to corrode into dust, and “Degenerate Mages” who use energy gained by mutating their own bodies. A second answer I came up with is to say that in the broken world, using magic acts as a call or lure to eldritch monsters and latent curses left over from the cataclysm. The more you use it, the greater the chance of summoning a random horror that will try and eat your brain. A third possibility, is to build on the godless nature of the setting by having a cataclysm that destroyed both heaven and hell, and mages now exploit all the homeless angels by binding them into service with false faith and spilled blood.

Dark-Sun-Defiler

The degree of grimdark (3) is something to discuss with potential players. Dark Sun was a high lethality setting, with blood being spilled by gladiators on the arena sands, slavery in most of the cities, a backstory that featured explicit attempts at genocide, and a strong possibility of bloodthirsty witch hunts if the slightest hint of someone using defiling magic turned up. I think everyone needs to be comfortable with the premise that life is cheap, and a lot of aspiring heroes perish in the wastelands or dungeons of the sorcerer tyrants. Adapting an idea from Tomb of Annihilation, resurrection could be explicitly impossible. Perhaps the cultural norm is to burn the dead to prevent zombies and worse things in a world where there is no afterlife or place for souls to go to after death. I did have an idea that one use for the d100 Passion mechanic could be for testing whether your PC returns as a single purpose revenant for one final death ride of an adventure.

Psionic power is a feature of the Dark Sun setting that never really came up in my teenage AD&D games, although they did feature in the Traveller campaign I played in at university. Psionics are definitely different from magic, in that there are no defiling side effects. So, how exactly do psionic powers differ from other forms of magic?

Are psionic powers more “scientific” than the “fantastical” magic? This might reflect the serious research interest that concepts like “remote viewing” attracted in the 1960s and 70s, but which are now clearly discredited (although you might say that’s exactly what the Illuminati want me to think). It also reflects the influence of John Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, who coined the term psionics and encouraged its use in science fiction stories.

You might think a rational power like psionics could be learned, but in fiction its often the reverse – the apprentice can learn magic from the ancient grimoires, but psionics, you either got it or you don’t. Traveller let you learn psionics, but you had to find one of the hidden institutes first. In Luther Arkwright, you had to roll 58-59 on 1d100 when determining your PC’s distinctive trait to be eligible for psionic powers.

Are psionic powers powered purely from within, unlike “divine” magic or other forms of tapping external energy? The classic tells in visual media of psychics include nosebleeds and the fingers tapping on the forehead. What happens when you run out of psionic power? Does your head explode, or do you just fade out into unconsciousness? Can you permanently lose your psionic powers from overexertion? What about psychic vampires?

Are psionic powers intangible, unlike the tangible effects of magic? In fiction, psionic power is often “information magic”, such as Clairvoyance, Precognition, Retrocognition, Telepathy, and empathy. Where it can cross the grimdark line is when it crosses the line into mental attacks and forms of mental compulsion. That feels much more like it should be a signature power of the tyrants ruling society, not the heroes fighting against them. One way of handling psionic powers might be framing them as investigative tools as in a GUMSHOE game. The other main forms of psionic powers I see in fiction are the ability to manipulate energy and physical objects (like the Jedi do) and to passively boost survival chances.

Is magic the domain of old professors of lore, while psionics is the realm of teenagers used in illicit military experiments? Is psionic power something you age out of? Traveller took that approach, in that the older you were when you learned psionics, the weaker your psionic strength was. Is it a feature of being a more “evolved” species? Can you find “psionic items” the same way you find “magic items”? The science/fantasy split suggests a psionic item is more advanced technology than a magic item would be, for example, a pistol versus a sword.

Going back to the Dark Sun setting inspiration, I think I might package psionics and magic along these lines:

  • psionic powers rely on using internal power sources, i.e. from within yourself.
  • magic powers rely on using external power sources, i.e. exploiting energies associated with places, entities, sacred times, rituals, etc.
  • I would allocate all forms of mental compulsion to magic, and make domination of others one of the signature feats of evil sorcerers. But one option for psionic power might be greater resistance to “charm person” spells.
  • I would restrict most use of psionic powers to the person using them, or perhaps with a heavy restriction, e.g. if you can heal others, you cannot heal yourself, and the healing process may harm you.
  • I am okay with allowing both magic and psionic powers to be developed through training.
  • the key risk of psionics is overexertion and burn out, the key risk of magic is loss of control over the forces you have summoned. A bad day for a psychic might involve a splitting headache, where a bad day for a sorcerer involves setting a forest on fire.
  • this leads to a conclusion that psionics and magic need different resource management systems within the broader game system. The psionic power user is limited by their personal power, while the sorcerer is only limited by how much harm they are willing to inflict on their local environment.

An unrelated idea I have been kicking around, based in part on 13th Age, is the idea of escalation. If casting spells before combat buffs characters so they have an asymmetric advantage for a surprise attack, I think in play you get players wanting to spend a lot of time on planning and maneuver before committing to action. This gets worse if ritual magic that takes long casting times is a feature of your magic system. So an alternative approach is to have the use of magic powers makes subsequent magic use by anyone in the vicinity more powerful as the dimensional barriers are broken down, then its a bit easier for the players to get their PCs to jump in and worry about the buff spell later on.

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The Ruin of Angels (potential spoilers)

The Craft Sequence features a world of post-industrial magic, after a war between Gods and Sorcerers, which the Gods lost. The books often address contemporary social issues through a fantasy lens, like social inequality and the 1%. In The Ruin of Angels, Alikand is an occupied city which has been badly damaged in the war – not just people and buildings, but the fabric of reality itself. Alikand is a place where just turning the corner and looking the wrong way can induce a SAN check, or see you fall through a gap into a version of the city where the war is still being fought between the Gods and Sorcerers. This is a bit like the trope for layered worlds. This is appealing from a game design view, because you can pack more ideas into one location in the game. In Alikand, one of the activities done by the people resisting the occupation is to deliberately venture into the lethal war dimension, in order to salvage books that no longer exist in the real world. I feel this could fit well with the city-state ruled by sorcerer-tyrant element of the Dark Sun setting.

So there is some potential here for a West Marches campaign that is based around Urban hex crawls. You have the city of oppression, which is a “safe” home base, because it won’t make you go insane or be devoured by extra-dimensional monsters. But just a hop, skip, and jump through the mirror is an adjacent dimension with locations that map to familiar places, but which are filled with hazards and monsters. Survive to leave with your loot, and then you can try dodging the secret police squads trying to crack down on relic smuggling.

One way of integrating psionics with the layered world approach, is to tie the different strands of psionic powers to different dimensions that adjoin the city. I’ll admit some influence here from the “warrens” of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The flavour of each set of psionic powers is determined by the dimension layer(s) a psychic is attuned to the right wavelengths for, or some other kind of fluff. So a PC with psionic powers tied to a water filled dimension might be able to avoid dehydration for an extended period of time.

…and that’s enough for tonight.

 

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