D&D Encounters Dark Sun (Week 1)

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on June 10, 2010

The first session of D&D Encounters: Dark Sun was a sink or swim lesson in desert survival. This second season of the program takes place on the world Athas, an endless expanse of sand and searing heat having been blasted lifeless by the ravaging effects of magic. On Athas the majority of the population swelters in the heat of oppression in slavery while tyrannical sorcerer-kings live lavish and absurd life styles within the walls of their city states.

Welcome to Athas! Following an introduction to the world that our characters found them selves in, we joined the action as we took part in a caravan as guards. Since resources are so scarce on Athas and the wilderness is inhabited by cruel raiders (not to mention cannibalistic Halflings), cargo moves from city to city in large caravans fortified by hired swords fighting to earn their next meal. It is on this errand that our party was devastated by a rain of jet black obsidian from above which obliterated the majority of the caravan after only one days travel from civilization. It was after most of the caravan was killed by falling stone when we were ambushed.

As lizard men began to raid the wagon train a very strong tone was set that I hope will persist throughout the arc of the season: Life on Athas is pragmatic at best. Where did that obsidian come from? Why is in raining on us? I suspect that these questions and many more will never be answered. Our characters didn’t have time to ponder the source of our assailant because we had the task of grabbing as many days’ supplies as we could before running for our lives into the endless desert. You know that the circumstances are dire when the best course of action includes a life denying wasteland.

The encounter was very well designed and featured many dimensions that brought it above beyond the dull “roll high numbers until the monster’s hit points reach zero” type encounter. The party was seated next to their ruined cart with its survival supplies flung across the sand. As a minor action the players could pick up one day’s worth of survival supplies, provoking attacks of opportunity when relevant. This posed a quizzical situation to the party: Is it more important to escape with our lives now and find food later, or is it better to dispatch all threats in hopes of being able to keep our supplies? Is it better to die in the desert with bags of food or without them? Tough choice. To make matters worse reinforcements were incoming and not to be taken lightly. Lizard men with blowguns were equipped with poisons that immobilized. Good luck fleeing for your life, supper.

In the end our party made off with enough food to feed us for five days even though two fifths of our party had to be carried off of the battlefield as we fled. I suppose the lizard men we escaped were angry because they wanted to eat us and make weapons from our bones. Gross. Awesome? Gross. Is five days worth of food going to be enough? Not likely as I am sure there is more than five days worth of desert on this god forsaken planet, and Athas actually is god forsaken, which is to say there are no gods. It’s as if on the seventh day god looked upon his creation and realized a barren world wasn’t such a good idea after all. Instead of nurturing his creation he opted to leave it be and have creation sort its own problems out.

Also, there’s no metal, which is to say there’s very little. Even wood is considered an extravagance on Athas, and as a result the party is equipped in such a manner that you would suspect that they just came from a vulgar brawl at a taxidermist’s.

So the theme and the tone were strong, but in many places the presentation was poor, most remarkably of all the pre-generated characters. Many people were sore about this point, and low and behold they had good reason to be as every single character’s card had multiple errors, from skills and ability modifiers that weren’t calculated correctly (in some places by as much as +6) to powers with completely incorrect entries. Many of the people I played with expressed the wish that Wizards of the Coast would make the characters available via the character builder so that at the very least the math would have been correct. While it’s understood that there are certain proprietary reasons why they cannot publish content to the character builder from their not yet released books it frustrates players when they have to fix the publisher’s errors.

Another reason why the players are lamenting the fact that they are forced to play the error ridden characters is that some of them suck! I played Barcan (or Barqan, depends on which part of the character sheet you’re looking at) who is a sorcerer with a whopping 22 hit points, 6 healing surges and an AC of 12. Barcan had to fight monsters that hit him on a roll of 4 or higher; sorry kiddo, you’re not set out for desert survival, though with your 8 points in wisdom it seems like you’re going to be the last person to find out. While I did really enjoy this encounter I feel like myself and other players will loose interest in playing extremely elaborate paper weights.

The only saving grace, that even these errors and omissions couldn’t detract from, would be if there are some seriously compelling plot hooks interwoven between the characters. Barcan is the older brother of one of the party members, and is being mentored by another so let’s hope the adventure brings these threads to fruition in the greater fabric. What better way to tie people into the game world than with interesting personalities that are deeply rooted in the world they live in? All the people I played with really liked how well this first session set a strong tone. Dark Sun stakes its claim as part of a well defined trajectory. While each adventure will differ there will be key qualities about Dark Sun that will remain consistent and distinct. Meanwhile settings like the Forgotten Realms only seem to provide me with new names of forests for you to remember. I’ll stick with my horrible mutant half Dwarves, thank you very much, elves of dark/mist/fell/black/green-wood.

I am really looking forward to the coming weeks of this adventure. There are a few issues but in the grand scheme of things they are minor, and as a player I’m not about to let them get in my way, just know I would never pay for this kind of workmanship. What was your experience with the first session of Encounters: Dark Sun? Does it serve your fond memories well? Did it get you into the world, even if you didn’t like the idea before? Do you have any cool Athas related stories? Leave a comment if so.

I would like to take a moment to mention one of things that I do when I’m not writing for Dungeon’s Master, which is record actual play podcasts. If you want to hear the whole adventure with my group you can find the recording by searching for Shattered Sea on iTunes. You’ll also find the entirety of the first season of D&D Encounters recorded and presented there as well.

Visit the Dungeon’s Master D&D Encounters Archive for all of our ongoing weekly coverage as well as other great D&D Encounters articles and resources.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ameron June 10, 2010 at 9:08 am

I want to thank Bauxtehude for stepping in to provide the first D&D Encounters write up of season two. I’m on vacation and regrettably couldn’t participate in this week’s encounter. Starting next week I’ll be running D&D Encounters season two as the DM and will get back to the weekly recaps. Until then, let’s hear your thoughts on D&D Encounters season two and your experiences playing in the new Dark Sun setting.

2 Kenneth McNay June 10, 2010 at 9:42 am

it was a great encounter. As DM, strange things happen on my watch. My dice were cursed with roll roll fever. The encounter which could have been a TPK became extremely easy as the enemies missed frequently and the ‘leader’ of their small raiding band took full falling damage from failure to properly hop down from the rock he began on top of. He also failed to climb another rock he tried to get on top of.

The players were still deeply challenged; two were dropped below 0, but everyone enjoyed seeing the comedy of errors from the enemy attackers. I really tried my best to run with the best possible tactics, but the dice decided otherwise.

The players had quite a stroke of luck as they rarely missed during the fight. Damage was a bit low, but they were good at landing hits. That can make a huge difference over large damage rolls…

Everyone had a great time and were able to collect survival days’ supplies for the next few days of desert travel.

3 Niklaus June 10, 2010 at 10:38 am

I too thought they encounter was really nice, if not a bit above the PC’s level. I ran this encounter as a DM and had to pull some punches and purposefully make some bad decisions for our little reptile friends, or it would have been a very quick TPK. My group did make it out, minus 2 party members, one of which had made it out, but chose to run back in to the thick of battle to try and save his fallen comrade.

I think some of the abilities and the surrounding environment were a bit on the tough side, but at the same time, this is DarkSun and I think that was done on purpose to set the tone.

The errors on the PC’s character sheets was very disappointing to me, I thought they would have gotten all the kinks worked out of their Encounter’s system after last season, but I guess you get what you pay for. It’s just bad when Encounter’s brings new players into the game, and the quality of what they are getting doesn’t compare to the quality of the ‘real’ thing.

All in all, I think everyone had a good time and are looking forward to the rest of the season.

4 Jedrious June 10, 2010 at 11:08 am

I actually had the opportunity to both play and run yesterday, at our venue, we have a 5 o’clock run and now 2 7 o’clock runs. As a player, the group consists of Barcan, Jarvix, Yuka, Shikkirr and two Phyes, we had a fairly difficult time, what ultimately saved us was poor recharge rolls (more on that later), we all ran under our own power with an average of 7 supplies each.

We then come to the next group, I don’t DM very often, but my paraphrasing of the grey boxes from memory met with a lot of “oh, @#$%, we’re gonna die!” reactions. Now, to see why they’re right, you need to know q DMing knack I have, I succeed on 90% of my recharge rolls, the first dragon I ever ran in 4e breathed 15 consecutive rounds, my party did not like being hit by 3 recharge powers a round. Now, being the first session, I allowed players to bring in a new character the round after they died, which actually made the kill count 7 player deaths in a party of 4. All in all, the party limped away with 9 days of supplies.

5 Lahrs June 10, 2010 at 11:08 am

Due to having some unexpected guests showing up at the store, I had the unique pleasure of both running and then playing in the first encounter.

I was not happy with the Read Aloud section given in the book, so I greatly expanded on it with a write up of my own, giving more detail to the journey in the caravan, and added emphasis on obtaining the survival days within cart while danger lurked on the horizon.

We had a full table of mostly experienced players, but the session was still brutal. Part of the problem was just bad luck of the die; I rolled well, while they struggled to get above a 4 on the d20. That has nothing to do with the module, it is simply bad luck. We had six natural 1′s, but nobody used the weapon breakage rule. I made some adjustments to damage, and decided to not use the poison attack, but the group still struggled. Two fell quickly to the bone spear, prompting the use of the first healing fruit. In the end, the group used 14 healing surges (including after the battle to refill their HP), but managed to take 23 survival days. Two dropped all of their actions so they could grab three a round, before high tailing it out of there, while the other four held off the attackers as best they could. They didn’t think to run until after they engaged the reinforcements and realized they were not going to survive. I did give one outright piece of out of character knowledge, and that was a heads up to the fact they were not going to be able to get an extended rest until after the fifth session. DM discretion, but I felt with the difficulty of the encounters, this bit of information was throwing them a bone.

After everyone finally retreated to safety, I do not think I have ever DM’d a session where there was such a strong sense of relief and triumph when all was done, and I believe that is the entire point of the first encounter. The group was much livelier than in any of our Halistors’ Apprentice sessions, which is great, we all had fun and a lot of it was due to the higher difficulty. Are the Silt runners overpowered compared to the group? Yes, but a DM should adjust on the fly to make it work, or rewrite some of the abilities before the session begins.

In the second session, where I had the chance to play Phye, the DM pulled no punches and played everything as is. The DM wasn’t sadistic, and made all the rolls in front of us, so we know he didn’t fudge anything. The party lasted until the beginning of the fourth round. Take that for what it is worth. Sadly, a few of the new people played in this campaign, and I do not believe they will be coming back, which is the opposite effect Wizards was trying to accomplish.

I do recommend going to the Wizards Encounters forum, copy the players errata and hand it out to the players. Some of the adjustments are minor, but a fix is a fix.

6 Dan June 10, 2010 at 12:09 pm

From a player perspective, I found the errors on the character sheets to be more of a distraction and a source of mirth than an actual game hinderance. I enjoyed the encounter, but I thought the excessive damage the party took as a bit of an overkill (especially the high damage from the “lawn darts of death”). For my first attempt at playing Encournters I found it enjoyable interacting with others that I had never played with, nor met before…

7 Anarkeith June 10, 2010 at 12:33 pm

I ran session 1 and 2 at my FLGS as a substitute for a DM who couldn’t make it. The discussion on WotC’s forum was vital. Hearing the designer’s intent for the first encounter meant I was able to set up the party to survive it. I provided the Ranger and Tiefling characters with current versions of their erratta’d powers, but otherwise left errors in the character sheets alone.

As presented, I think Dark Sun has an old-school feel with fragile, flawed characters and a deadly setting. I warned players to use their skills to gather knowledge about their enemies and environment, and to carefully record anything they recovered. This approach feels “new” to me for 4e, but decidedly familiar in an old school way. I liked it, and the players enjoyed it as well.
Anarkeith´s last blog post ..Choices and Consequences

8 Coda June 10, 2010 at 5:39 pm

This was my first experience playing D&D Encounters and I had a great time. The whole encounter had a nice tension between offense and defense – do you stay by the caravan and gain supplies, or do you venture out into the shardstorm to deal with the attacking lizards?

Our group had a strong start and managed to bring down a pair of lizards quickly, but then things got perilous as two of our number dropped and others were reduced to little more than a few HP. Thankfully Phye pulled out an epic turnaround and managed to revive the two dying party members, shield the entire party, and kill the lizard shaman in one turn with judicious use of an action point.

Things went much better after that, although the elf did tempt fate by rushing back to engage the reinforcements with only 4 HP left. The dice gods were with him, though, and he managed to live long enough to realize his error and beat a hasty retreat with the rest of us.

Good fun – can’t wait ’til the next one.

9 Pat June 11, 2010 at 1:00 am

I have to agree that the first encounter really set the tone well. I found it very easy to immerse myself in the world. I didn’t find the various typos gamebreaking but I am worried that the highest Armor Class on a character is the 18 on Yuka. I’d like to say that I’m impressed with the new goodies they sent us this time around. First coasters, now cup holders – I hope to see soda-drinking hats soon!

I played Jarvix and we had one extra player at the table tonight playing a second Castri. We still had some trouble with the encounter, our battlemind went down once, as well as each ranger. Barcan and I managed to stick back, and really tear through the battlefield. I myself got 4 out of 5 kills, man is Mind Thrust potent. The enemies had barely any Will defense and 1d10+5 psychic can make short work of low-level monsters. We made out with a total of 22 days worth of supplies! Of course they remain undivided as the Ardent and I spent 2+ minor actions a round gathering while everyone else fought. But we stayed as long as we could before the horde showed up so hopefully we’ll survive the desert until we find some sort of sanctuary.

The next encounter will be interesting. We’re drained of our resources and we’re on the run. I think the first encounter was quite challenging so I’m not entirely certain we’ll survive the season. Heck, we fell to Xeres at the last moment last season. But it will be fun I’m sure. I’d hate to imagine what the first encounter would be if we were short a member or two!

10 Nithavela June 11, 2010 at 3:07 am

Our group was wiped in a spectacular fashion. We were literally killed without the monsters even trying. Running away was no option as we were quickly immobilized by the poison attacks and for every guy we revived, two fell down. The leader died first. Jup, really died to the leaders attack.

It was a combination of bad luck (horrible rolls on our part, max damage, constantly high rolls and recharging powers on the enemies side) and lacking strategy (not suprising, as it was our first time playing together). After the game, most of us were disappointed. Nearly all characters were killed, and the rest unconcious. I honestly have no idea how he is going to continue running the game, we didn’t even collect 1 day of supply. We didn’t know we were able too, the only thing the DM mentioned were the healing fruits.

11 Thorynn June 11, 2010 at 7:38 am

As everyone else mentioned, this was a brutal encounter. Our party was made up of veteran role players, but we only had 5 members, deciding not to play Jarvix, as he seemed the most anemic of the pre-gens. Our ranger was taken out by a critical poison dart doing 23 damage. Barc(q)an tried to save him and was quickly swarmed and dropped. Shakirr was holding most of them off, using the 3-claw attack power to great effect. I played Phye, and managed to drop one bug while simultaneously healing the elf and Barc(q)an. We ran away as the second wave appeared on the horizon. The DM mercifully had them descend on the caravan, tearing it to pieces, rather than tearing us to pieces. We escaped with 20 days of supplies as 3 of our guys were gathering a lot earlier on. A memorable encounter to be sure.

12 Barcan/Barqan June 14, 2010 at 12:29 am

This was my first 4E play and I also played Barcan/Barqan. The character as the review mentioned is quite fragile. The very first round I was smacked by the boss lizardman’s daily and bloodied, forcing me to use second wind right away. From that moment on I made sure to stay out of range of as much as I could, picking people off. We only lost one player who got critical’d bad. So far I am really liking the campaign setting. I can’t wait to see what next week brings.

13 Noumenon August 2, 2010 at 10:46 am

Even wood is considered an extravagance on Athas, and as a result the party is equipped in such a manner that you would suspect that they just came from a vulgar brawl at a taxidermist’s.

Hilarious writeup.

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