December 3, 2010

Dark Sun: Black Flames

Recently WotC rereleased the Dark Sun setting for 4E. This article is part of a series that examines a release from 2E Dark Sun and sees how and if it can be integrated with the new 4E version of the world setting.

The sourcebook we’re looking at today is one of the DSM series of adventures. These consisted of 4 adventure book sets including Black Flames (DSM1, 1993), Merchant House of Amketch (DSM2, 1993), Marauders of Nibenay (DSM3, 1993) and Black Spine (1994). They came in a variety of formats. As I will comment more on later, while the adventures are billed as being part of a series, there is little to nothing to tie them together.

I’ll mention here at the beginning that these adventures were written for the 2E system. Therefore the stats included in the modules are of no value beyond the level of an NPC for comparison’s sake. This article is more about how difficult it would be to adapt the module to the 4E rules and if there is anything radically divergent from the 4E setting.


This adventure came in the format that the 2E Dark Sun setting made extensive use of. It is in a folder which holds 2 spiral bound books and a 16 page booklet. On the folder itself there is a list of the monsters that appear in the adventure with their combat stats.

The actual adventure consists of the 2 spiral books. The pages are on heavy cardboard stock and the last two pages are designed to allow the book to stand; the DM then flips through the pages as needed. One of the spiral books is for the DM only and has the details of the adventure within it. The second book is for the players and consists of pictures (some in color) and maps that relate to the adventure, as well as 6 pre-generated player characters. Parts of the DM book direct the players to look up specifically numbered pictures in the player’s book; these are pictures that correspond to what the DM is trying to present in game.

If you think that 4E’s current encounter model of only using 1-2 pages to describe an encounter is harsh and limiting, the DM book presents an encounter on 1 smaller page. However, the writer does a good job providing relevant information. They don’t provide combat stats on the page (unlike 4E) but the combat stats are organized all together on the folder, so are still handy. Each page presets either an overview of what is going on, with a list of what permutations can happen or has a single encounter on the page. Written encounters also provide answers for when the players go off track. Altogether there are 48 pages of information in the DM’s book, far more than the standard D&DInsider adventure. The player’s book also provides adventure information in the form of maps. However, it should be mentioned that the encounters are broader strokes than the typical 4E adventure. 4E adventures go into minute detail on the location, providing stats for such things as torches and tables, whereas this adventure gives less details, but still provides a good overview of the encounter.

The player characters are forced into exploring an ancient ruin and cleaning a cursed oasis.

Part One
The players are assumed to be caravan guards/passengers on the road from Urik to Raam. There is some lenience as to why they are there as the adventure provides several different reasons for being on the road. The main goal of the setup is for the players to be somewhere near the ruined city of Yaramuke. The adventure starts with 4 encounters that have no bearing on the overall plot, though one is a set up for later as it shows the effects of something that can happen to the players further into the adventure.

The adventure really starts when the villain of the adventure hits the party with a massive, but short, sandstorm that separates the players from the other NPCs they may be with, destroys their resources of food and water and then places them lost in the wilderness. After taking stock of their situation the villain shows up and presents the players with new resources, specifically water. The adventure assumes that at least some of the players partake of the food and water offered and thus they become victims of a curse that will kill them slowly but inevitably. There is an encounter wherein the characters can resist the villain, but it is written so the players can not succeed.

The villain, named Farcluun, is an extremely high level (epic) NPC; in fact he is into his epic destiny as a Dragon King. So in addition to controlling the players through the curse, which can only be cured by recovering something from the nearby ruined city of Yaramuke, he can also control them through brute force (though the adventure is set up so his Dragon King status will be revealed near the end of the adventure for more impact).

After getting some gear from Farcluun and a short journey, Part One ends with the players approaching Yaramuke.

Part Two
The players are presented with the ruins of Yaramuke and given a general map to explore. This section is fairly open ended as they can go anywhere within the ruined area, finding various encounters depending on where exactly they go. There are encounters written for the Museum, Barracks, Warehouse, Temple, and Visitor’s Center. In addition there are some set monsters such as the Silt Runner lair, Gith Cave and a dangerous servant of the sorcerer-queen, Abalach-Re. All of these locations are written in a bare-bones fashion, with general descriptions of what the former purpose of a room was and any possible occupants. If there are any monsters it is assumed the GM will look up their stats elsewhere. There are also no tactics sections, as that is left up to the GM as well.

The goal here is to gather two component parts and use them on a large statue and when done, this reveals and opens the palace. The palace is on three large levels and on the last level is an ancient scroll that Farcluun wants but also that the sorcerer-queen Abalach-Re wants. The scroll is also of use to the players for cleansing the curse. Once the scroll is found Farcluun will betray his word and attempt to kill the players but Abalach-Re (with a horde of undead) has by now arrived and she also wants the scroll. Now a grand battle occurs between the two allowing the players to flee. Unfortunately, the upheaval, and the removal of the scroll, has caused defenders (golems) of the palace to activate. This becomes a running battle as the palace begins to cave in on itself, golems and undead try to kill the fleeing characters and two dragons fight.

This section ends (assuming the players survive) with the palace collapsing in on itself and the players fleeing toward the Black Oasis, the source of their curse.

Part Three
This part is fairly straightforward. The players first encounter the various undead that have died from the curse that the players now have. Some of these undead just want release, and are willing to aid the players, while some want to spread their pain, and want to kill the players. The players must negotiate with a druid who watches over the cursed oasis to gain his help is using the scroll.

After an extended battle protecting the oasis and druid from the attacking undead the oasis should be cleansed and the players healed form the curse. To bring the adventure full circle, Farcluun (and Abalach-Re) survived the collapsing of the palace and Farcluun has come to the oasis to seek revenge against the players. However, he is severely wounded and is now on a more even level with the players.

The adventure includes some of the more well known locations of the Dark Sun setting, specifically Yaramuke and the Black Oasis. Bringing in “named” locations and people helps to bring a setting alive, as they become more than just a background notation.

The adventure has a lot of railroading (the initial cursing of the players) and some parts where the players are left out of the main action and forced to pick up the scraps (the battle between Farcluun and Abalach-Re). However, it is kind of cool to be around these scenes and the adventure does at least give the players something to do. Also being able to change the world, by cleansing the Black Oasis always makes players feel more connected with a setting.

The second spiral book of artwork is very useful and, despite my general disdain for Baxa’s artwork, some of it is actually pretty good, especially the ones in color. The art does enhance the adventure.

It would not take much to bring this adventure up to usable form for the 4E setting. Obviously the biggest job would be creating the monsters and NPCs that the players would have to fight. The use of the Monster Builder would make this a much easier task. Some of the monsters should already be in the Monster Builder as they appear in the Dark Sun Creature Catalog, but the unique monsters would need some work. The 16 page booklet has the stats (in 2E) for the unique characters and this information can be used to help create their 4E equivalents.

There is not much that deviates from the 4E setting, though Farcluun can create some misunderstandings. The module presents him as a dragon, but he is not a sorcerer-king. Rather, he would be a wizard who has reached (or is near to reaching) the epic destiny of Dragon King.


Matthew AC said...

Getting ready to start a Dark Sun game. That coupled with the fact I'm and old Dark Surn DM means I'm greatly enjoying this series. Keep up the good work!

Fabian said...

Baxa didn't illustrate this one, which may explain why you didn't dislike the Artwork so much. ;)