December 8, 2010

Dark Sun: Black Spine

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 module diverges from the precedent seen in the previous three adventures. While the adventure still comes with a folder holding the adventures, the adventures are not in spirals anymore. This time they come in 3 96 page books (all together giving us 288 pages of adventure). A map of the local area near Nibenay is on the inside of the folder, but no NPC stats are included this time on the folder itself. Two large fold out maps are also provided of cities that the characters will run into. The only connection to the previous adventure module in the series (Marauders of Nibenay) is that they recommend the adventure starts in Nibenay, where the last adventure ended. There is, however, no mention of the previous adventure or how to tie the two together.

This adventure can only described as epic in its scale. It is divided into seven adventures, which are further divided into parts. There are 4 designers listed, and the feeling I got while reading it is that each writer wrote up one or two of the adventure chapters each. While overall the adventure flows well together, the various adventure chapters are self contained.

The players are asked to protect a slave tribe from attack by gith using steel weaponry. After doing so, they pursue the leads and eventually stop a planned githyanki invasion of Athas.

Adventure One: Clash by Night
Part One consists of an NPC from the Tenpug’s Band slave tribe asking the players to protect them from an upcoming attack of gith. The lead-in to the adventure is weak and relies more on the players seeking adventure than any real impetuous to go help them. I think it is all supposed to come down to the fact that this is the adventure and the players had best go on it. The part mentions running some random wilderness/travel encounters and includes a specific encounter with some gith to foreshadow the upcoming conflict.
This set-up is very reminiscent of the plotlines for the Seven Samurai or Magnificent Seven movies.

Part Two deals with arriving at the salve tribe’s location and we are introduced to the important individuals. 11 of the major NPCs are detailed, including their motivations and backgrounds, which will make it much easier to role-play them. Also we are giving a map with numbered and detailed locations. One location is an ancient temple the band uses and this is also mapped and detailed. Even if you were not to run this adventure, this part makes for an excellent description of a slave tribe you could use elsewhere.

Part Three is just asking to be made into a skill challenge. The tribe is in discussion on what to do about the impending attack, with some wanting to run and some wanting to fight. The detailed NPC information from the previous part is put to good use here. The players can join in on the discussions and add their input. It’s not clear why the players would want to, but it is assumed they will participate. However, no matter the outcome of the arguments, it is decided that more information is needed and that the payers should scout out the gith encampment, as that information will be needed either way.

This is done in Part Four. The players investigate the gith camp for which a map is provided, with locations numbered and detailed. On the way back from their fact-finding mission they are attacked by some gith which causes the slave tribe to become enraged and they as a whole decide to fight. This decision to fight is committed to regardless of what happened in Part Three.

Part Five details the preparations for the upcoming assault. It includes such things as training the slave tribe to fight, forging weapons and armor and making sorties against the enemy; again all very Seven Samurai-like. However, this would make an interesting skill challenge.

Part Six is all about the battle itself. It utilizes the 2E Battlesystem (or alternately the Castle Guide) to run the battle. Neither of those apply to 4E so this will take some work on the GMs part to make it function. However, the adventure is written that the end result is the characters and slave tribe fall back into the ancient temple as their forces get overrun.

Following the battle, Part Seven details some tunnels below the temple which acts as a dungeon crawl. A detailed map is provided. At the end of the dungeon is an artifact of great destructive power.

Part Eight deals with the end of the siege and battle with the gith as the artifact from the previous Part is used to destroy the enemy. Vague guidelines are provided for the continued use of the artifact, but all we are really told is that it will eventually kill the character using it and the character can’t get rid of it. However, it shouldn’t be a big project to convert the artifact to 4E standards. Thus ends Adventure One, with the gith on the run and the characters victorious.

Adventure Two: Cry Vengeance
Parts One picks up right after the battle and does some quick wrap-up. By the end of it, the party is roped into enacting vengeance against the gith, as well as tasked with determining where the gith got all their steel weapons from. The forces of the slave tribe is packed up and moved as an army after the gith.

Part Two deals with the journey across the wilderness, providing some encounters on the way. They mostly concern combats, but there is some potential for role-play with some elven travelers.

Also on the journey a gith lord, a powerful psionicist, will start to mess with the characters and the slave tribe. Part Three details these psychic attacks. It all makes for some slightly surreal encounters. It is possible to create some really interesting encounters when bringing these encounters up to the 4E rule set.

Part Four is the end of this adventure, wherein the characters and their make-shift army arrives at the gith outpost, a mining camp the gith took from Nibenay. The mining camp is given a map with locations on it. There are also some remnants of a Nibenay army force that tried and failed to retake the mining camp. This provides for some roleplay opportunities as the characters can try to convince them to help assault the camp. However, no mention is made of the previous adventure in the series, Marauders of Nibenay, as that adventure ended with the characters being heroes of Nibenay. No course of action is presented; the camp is presented and it is up to the players to figure out a way to take it over. The adventure assumes the characters win the fight here; in fact, it states that the DM should make sure they win so the adventures can continue.

Adventure Three: Into the Mines
The gith that had attacked the slave tribe’s home and taken the mine were from a gith nest deep underground that the miners opened a way into and caused them to boil up from. It is here that the party finally goes on their own, leaving the slave tribe and their army behind. The characters are tasked with discovering where the gith are getting their metal weaponry and to explore the gith nest to see how dangerous they will be in the future. Part One describes the journey through the tunnels. The entire is not mapped out, but rather, encounters that the characters can/will encounter are mapped out. It is assumed the intervening tunnels are not worth mapping or describing in anything other than a vague narrative.

Part Two is all about the gith nest and provides a map and 24 encounter locations. The characters will be able to remove the nest as a threat, but will not have found the source of the metal weapons and will instead have a found a way to continue on. Thus ends this adventure and the first adventure book.

Adventure Four: The City of Calamity
Herein the characters reach Yathazor, an ancient githyanki city long ago lost. The first of the two large fold-out maps is a map of the city. The city has a wonderful unusual feel to it, mostly due to its architecture and ecosystem. It is abandoned except for a group of earth priests that recently discovered the city and have set themselves up in a small section of the city. While the map and the city are both large, almost none of the area is used.

Part One gives a brief history of the city, which while it doesn’t contradict anything from the 4E setting, is definitely supplemental as the 4E setting mentions nothing of githyanki or their establishing cities on Athas.

Part Two describes the character’s exploration of the city. It details the ecosystem which includes some unique plant life. A series of random encounters are provided for both the plants and animals that can be found within the city. Also provided is a list of nonweapon proficiencies (the 2E version of skills) that can be used to piece together the mysteries of the city. A savvy GM can use this information to create an interesting skill challenge that will reveal the history of the ancient city.

Altogether there are really only 3 adventure locations and Part Three describes the entrance to the city from the gith nest the characters dealt with in the last adventure.

Part Four is about the Pillar of the Overseer, a high tower in the center of the city. As such it will draw the players to it and they will likely explore its rooms.

Part Five covers the tunnels leading out from the city into the mountain. They essentially lead nowhere. I’m not sure why they were included; it would speed things up if they were simply cut from the adventure.

Part Six is the meat of this adventure. It describes in great detail the Square of Gurdek, a group of earth clerics. They discovered this city a few years ago and have moved into a small section of it while they explore it. They also are slightly to extremely crazy and part of their misinformation is that the gith are superior beings. There is no proscribed course of action with the group. The players can mostly ignore them, fight them or befriend them. This section is wide open for how the players want to deal with them, but the only way to proceed in the overall adventure is to sue the secret tunnel within their building which will allow the characters to go deeper into the mountain.

The NPCs are described in great detail as is their base of operations. 17 pages are given over to their description. The truly sad part is that it is possible to circumvent them almost entirely and all this information will be wasted. However, it is there if needed. This adventure ends with the characters finding the secret tunnel and moving further into the mountain.

Adventure Five: Beyond Yathazor
This portion focuses on several set encounters they will come across as they continue the journey through the mountain spine. Part One has them figure out how to cross a chasm and has some rooms nearby. A map is provided.

Part Two is a couple of caverns they can explore, though they can also easily bypass them. Again, a map is provided.

Part Three is a large area wherein the characters finally discover where the steel weapons are being made. They find a large mining and smelting operation going on and at the same time discover some of the githyanki behind the entire operation. In addition there are a lot of slaves they may want to rescue. This area has several buildings and mine shafts to explore and how the players want to proceed is up to them, though an escaped slave can provide some information to the characters at this point.

There is also a gray archway here that the players can enter which moves them along to the next adventure. It is assumed the characters will want to investigate the githyanki, their presence and the gate/archway.

Adventure Six: The Nightmare Gate
This adventure has two locations, the Garden of the Gith (a large biosphere which provides food for the gith) and the City of the Gith (the final and main gith nest). These two locations are run in succession and allows for no deviance so could be deemed rail-roadish at this point.

Part One deals with the Garden of the Gith. This is a large cavern full of plant life and used for food growth. There are set encounters here (a map is provided) as well as some random ones. As with most of theses encounters they are meant as interesting things to throw at the players, but overall only serve as obstacles to overcome on their way to final adventure.

Part Two details the City of the Gith. Despite its grand sounding name, this is fairly straight forward as the characters quickly move through an ancient city largely empty of gith. All the gith are in the center of the city taking part in a ritual near the Nightmare Gate, a magical gateway that is being built to allow the githyanki to easily move thousands of their kind to Athas as part of an invasion force. Just as the characters reach the Gate, the ritual ends with the 200 gathered gith having their souls sucked out to help empower the gate. A small group of githyanki that had been hidden under heavy clothes and drumming for the ritual, now reveal themselves and a fight ensues. No matter what happens during this fight, the Nightmare Gate is struck during the combat (or simply overloads) and the characters are sucked into the maelstrom that occurs thereafter. Thus ends this adventure.

Adventure Seven: City of Spires
This is the final adventure. The adventure starts with a brief description of the villain of the adventure, Queen Trinth. She is a githyanki who has gained possession of a sentient artifact and with it plans to first take over Athas and with the natives of Athas (who are deemed to be more powerful, especially with psionics) to take the rulership of the githyanki from the lich-queen.
A large fold-out map is provided for Queen Trinth’s city and a quick description is give for the general outlay of the city. While the map is nice to look at, it does not provide much use in the actual adventure.

Part One starts with the characters captured and in a cell within the prison section of the city. The collapse of the Nightmare Gate had sucked them into the Astral Plane and knocked them unconscious, where they were easily captured by the githyanki on the other side. The characters must now figure out a way to escape. They can do this either on their own or with the help of a githzerai spy. A map of the area is provided and the characters can interact with the other prisoners on their way out.

Part Two goes more into the githzerai spy, which is a good thing since the spy is a major driving force for a lot of the rest of the adventure. Here it is explained that the queen has an evil artifact and it must be taken into the Nightmare Gate as that will destroy it.

After escaping the prison and meeting the spy, the spy explains that the githzerai have a hidden outpost nearby where they can get some help in an assault on the githyanki queen and her city. In Part Three, the spy teleports them all to an astral asteroid. Unfortunately for the characters, the outpost was an old lair of some evil mages and had a malevolent beholder imprisoned within it. Before the characters get to the lair, the beholder had been released and killed all the githzerai there. The characters now have to explore the lair and deal with the beholder.

Part Four concludes this adventure and the module as a whole ends here. Herein the characters infiltrate the palace of the villain and, one way or another (either by sneaking to her throne room by themselves or by being captured), confront her. The confrontation is designed so that the characters are dropped into an arena and are forced to do some fights. If they manage to successfully kill the string of fights in the arena, they are able to face the queen directly when she comes to taunt the characters. All in all, the final confrontation seems a bit rushed in design. A good DM will want to allow the players to set the pace of the final confrontation and roll with what they come up with. The adventure and module end with the characters back on Athas with the Gate destroyed.

While this module doesn’t provide a player’s book full of pictures, there are a fair number of pictures scattered throughout the three books that highlight various scenes to be found within the module. These can be shown to the players to give a visual narrative of what the characters are seeing.

The adventures are fairly linear, as once the characters are on the adventure’s path it will be almost impossible to veer off. There also is a number of times where the character’s motivations to continue are weak and almost forced on the players. Also, there are multiple points where the GM is told to allow the characters to continue on despite what may have just happened.

There is a lot of use of the same type of monster, Gith. This can get tiring after awhile, so a GM adapting this adventure to 4E will want to make sure he keeps mixing up the abilities of the gith, so they appear different from each other.

The ancient inclusion of githyanki is not mentioned in the 4E setting book, though it might be hinted at with the existence of the gith. However, this adventure, while epic, does not cover much of the area of Athas and provides for many reasons of how the githyanki can interact within the adventure without upsetting the 4E setting. It should be possible to run this adventure without upsetting the 4E canon.
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