November 12, 2010
Foreword of Awesome
I’m gonna quote it in its entirety and add some of my own comments as we go along. Keep in mind it is the foreword to Dragon Kings, a Dark Sun supplement put out less than a year after the Dark Sun was released. It was the 6th rpg book for the Dark Sun line. It was also written for the 2E rule set. In addition, the author, Timothy B Brown, was one of the principle designers on the Dark Sun setting so he had some inner knowledge of the Dark Sun setting and its development.
“As I put the finishing touches to this volume, it occurs to me that it has been more than two years since design on the Dark Sun campaign began in earnest. For two years, pretty much every day a new idea pop up, another fall by the wayside, and a dozen questions get answered. In this book, I’m committing to paper the last of the original concepts we envisioned so long ago. For Athas, it is the end of the beginning.
But where is the Dark Sun setting going, and how does this book fit into that scheme?
The overriding design philosophy for support products is simple: concentrated campaign development. If you’re waiting for maps of the entire world of Athas, or campaign supplements that take us to the far side of the Sea of Silt and beyond, don’t hold your breath, ‘cause they’re not coming. Not for awhile. We’re concentrating on what’s in the boxed set: the Tyr Region and its seven city-states. We’ve barely touched that plot of sand, game development-wise, and it will take quite a while to fill it up with slave tribes, merchant houses, eleven raiders, and more. The Dark Sun campaign’s future is bright, but for now it’s strictly bounded within the existing campaign map.”
It was 6 months later that the sourcebook, Valley of Dust and Fire, was released. This book doubled the size of the setting’s regions, as it expanded into the Sea of Silt and mapped that area. It did fall outside the “existing campaign map”. However, the author does mention that the Dragon Kings book was the last from the initial “core” setting material. I just find it interesting how quickly things change.
If we had the same people then as we do now, along with the rampant prevalence of the internet, there would be a hue and cry about how ‘TSR went back on their word’ ‘TSR is not to be trusted on anything’ ‘TSR betrayed the players because all they care about is the money’. Is it good material? Yes, but that is not enough for some people.
However, my article is not about modern day elitism, but rather about taking an inside look at the process of game development and how it can change. Even back in 1992 things were not always set in stone.
“Then why a hardbound rules book devoted to higher-level characters? Dragon Kings serves two purposes-one obvious, one not.
First, Dragon Kings lets characters advance as high as 30th level in all classes. They get wondrous new abilities, possibly even new bodies, when they reach such heights of experience. We originated all these concepts early on in the design of the Dark Sun universe, but we kept them out of the original rules for two reasons. First, they wouldn’t all fit. Second, we didn’t want to give away the secrets revealed in the first Dark Sun novel, The Verdant Passage. (If you haven’t read the novel yet, be warned that this book spoils its surprises!)”
I do find it interesting they deliberately kept the concepts found in Dragon Kings out of the original setting book. Some would say it would have only increased the page count and added paper to include the content. There are always a multitude of reasons for doing something like this; I find it fascinating, and a bit sad, that so many vocal people seem to latch onto the worst of the reasons.
Anyway, the foreword gets to some really good stuff now.
“The second, less obvious reason to present rules for the highest-level characters is rooted in overall campaign development. I’m a firm believer that the macro-forces of a campaign world should set the tone for even the lowliest adventures-sort of a “trickle-down” theory, if you will. In a science fiction world, the ambitions of powerful corporations, star-spanning empires, and malevolent alien races set the stage for adventure. In the Dark Sun world, the sorcerer-kings, advanced beings, and other powerful characters set the tone. Characters beyond 20th level are the movers and shakers of Athas-their every move leaves a wake of adventure possibilities. To present a plausible Dark Sun campaign, a DM must understand that world’s most influential NPCs and their incredible powers.”
Interesting take on campaign design. Start with the biggest beings in your campaign setting and let them drive the design. This is similar to figuring out who the big bad guy is at the end of the campaign and working backward.
This is something similar to what I am currently doing in my two 4E campaigns. One is a sandbox where an ancient war was fought between a vast empire of snakes (naga and yuan-ti) and elemental/primordial forces of chaos. As the players explore the new lands they discover the ancient conflict and eventually its new iteration. The final conflict in the campaign will either be the players against the snakes or the elementals (their choice as to which side they choose), but by designing the big bad guys I was able build the world with that in mind. I have a destroyed city that was obliterated by the elementals and former slaves of the snakes that have formed their own culture now for the players to interact with.
The big guns shaped the world the players are now exploring.
“Why more powerful magics? Well, why not! Massive spells can help drive a campaign just as easily as powerful characters. I think of fantasy novels I’ve read that are centered on the casting of a single, incredible magical spell, one that take years to prepare and wipes out entire cities or nations. Whole adventures can revolve around casting such magic or preventing its casting.
The existing 9th-level AD&D game wizard spells do the same old stuff, just bigger and better; They protect the wizard from being killed by a bigger monster. To me, it’s just not epic. Casting a spell that erases a mountain range-now that’s magic!”
I like this look at what is epic. Too often we (DMs) become mired in the mundane and non-epic. High level is not always epic. Epic means things that change the world or worlds. The authors take on this is that the powers of the high level characters and NPCs can be used to get this feeling of epic. However you do it, epic is the feel every long running campaign should strive for.
“Do I expect lots of Dark Sun campaigns to become high-level campaigns? Do I want player characters unleashing 10th-level spells at one another as soon as they open this book?
No. But I do expect players to have something more to strive for, and I expect DMs to have everything they need to evolve a complete array of powerful NPCs for their little corner of Athas.”
I like this “strive for” concept. Bringing in his earlier comment of a ‘wizard spells do the same old stuff, just bigger and better; they protect the wizard from being killed by a bigger monster.’ Just getting a new spell that lets you do an extra d6 of damage is not really something to strive for. Give the players something cool and awesome (dare I say epic) to go for; maybe a castle of their own, maybe a hundred servitors, maybe the ability to erase a mountain.
A rule system can sometimes provide these goals, such as the abilities found in the Dragon Kings book. It added abilities that allowed the players to change the world around them. A system can bake in these things to strive for, but it is also something a GM can provide as well. It does not have to be system based. A GM can make ruling a kingdom a goal, destroying every devil in the Nine Hells a goal. What it is can be different for each game, but make sure that what the players are striving for is a change and not just more of the same.
“Obviously, use of player characters who have advanced beyond 20th level dictates a somewhat different role-playing style. These characters are usually people of great reputation who have many fantastic accomplishments to their credit and can challenge any foe or situation. More mundane adventures, such as searching for small treasures or taking jobs as mercenaries, become less important to the mega-characters. Their attentions should instead turn to more city- or region-sweeping epics, such as the search for lost ancient civilizations, struggles between large armies or nations, or quests for lost magical knowledge that can win a throne! Encourage high-level characters to use their talents toward lofty ends-what’s the point of advancing to 25th level if all you’re going to do is pen scrolls all day?
Note, though, that in the Dark Sun world, no one gains fantastic levels anonymously. In the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, a wizard night go from 20th to 30th level and hardly be noticed by the general populace, but I wanted something different for Athas.
No Dark Sun world character can escape the consequences of superior experience. With the exception of the rogues, high-level characters become victims of their own success. Fighters find themselves heading huge armies, like it or not. Fledging dragons and avangions have nothing but enemies, and psionicists must either join an exclusive organization or be hunted by it. In terms of game balance, is this fair? Given that each class has unique advantages, it all evens out in the end. And if not, well, nothing on Athas is particularly fair!”
As I was re-reading this foreword it struck me as words I had heard before; it is how WotC describes their Epic Tier, which coincidentally runs from level 20 to 30. I find it amusing seeing this in a publication from 15 years earlier.
“It has been a massive undertaking. I thank Zeb Cook, William W Connors, and J Robert King for their valuable input, and Troy Denning and James Lowder for literary input. Thanks also to Jim Ward for his assistance and to Allen Varney for his editorial expertise.
Let the games begin!
Timothy B Brown
All in all this was one of the most enjoyable and insightful forewords I have read (Justin Achilli’s foreword for the Open Game Table Volume 2 was pretty good too). It was nice to see inside the head of a developer.