Now that the second season of D&D Encounters has drawn to a close it seems like a good time for a little reflection. First of all thanks are in order to all the folks at Wizards of the Coast for producing and distributing the adventure, thanks go to my FLGS, Dueling Grounds for hosting us, and of course thanks to all the players who showed up.
Fury of the Wastewalker offered a great introduction to the Dark Sun setting. Though it was too brutal and unkind for some people’s liking, it succeeded in setting the tone that people have come to expect from Athas, the world of Dark Sun. A lot of characters died, a lot.
I think this adventure will serve as the best campaign primer for any DM that wants to start a Dark Sun game in the city of Tyr. The adventure touched on many of Dark Sun’s themes, such as dying in the desert, dying in caves, dying in the jungle and being eaten by cannibals. By the end of it the party will have arrived in the city they sought for so long, ready to begin the campaign you have planned. Clever move Wizards, I see what you did there.
The adventure showed off many of Dark Sun’s iconic creatures like silt runners and gave players introduction to things like survival days and reckless breakage, which had my whole table chanting on many occasions. If you’re new to Dark Sun I really feel that this adventure is the way to learn about what to expect, even if you’re just going to flip through it for a half hour before your first session under the sun. I think this adventure did a better job of establishing the feel of the setting than the Dark Sun Campaign Setting book. However, that might say more about the nature of hands-on experience than it does about the publication. The Dark Sun Campaign Guide provided information about the roles of the various races and the structure of society on Athas, but Fury of the Wastewalker really brought it together for me.
Though straightforward and enjoyable, I had mixed feelings about the dressings on the periphery of the plotline of the adventure. Through and through I learned very little about this Wastewalker and why exactly it was that he was so furious. If you put the guys name in the title it’s going to spark my curiosity. As a player I could tell that this Wastewalker fellow had motivations greater than wanting to jump around in my skin, but my character never really came in contact with such a diversity of experiences. I did enjoy the sense of depth this mystery gave the game. It really felt like the cast was concerned about one thing alone, survival. There are a lot of issues in the game that no investigation was given to because of the overwhelming drive to find civilization and (relative) safety. It doesn’t matter why hell rains from the skies, why some lizard creature hates you or what motivates the Halflings to become cannibals; all that matters is waking up each morning with all your organs. Dark Sun is not for everyone, and while I enjoyed my experience as a player I don’t know if I could play a long-term campaign in the setting without dreading each and every session.
This seemed to be the consensus amongst those who were new to the setting at my FLGS, that Dark Sun is unwelcoming. There were many people who arrived keen on some public play that never came back. Their character’s demolished in their first outing and left as no more than smoldering heaps of slag. One such person had developed and florid back-story for his armorless bard who was promptly eaten. So the story goes, her family invested all their material wealth into an ornate plucked string instrument. In Dark Sun you should wear armor, so the story goes. We had a team of crack DMs who did a great job of realizing this harsh world but in the end they all came to express a degree of regret. At points they were unkind to the party, but the adventure made them do it.
Compared to the last season of D&D Encounter I felt that season two had a lot more going for it. Undermountain, upon reflection, was largely insensible to most players because they had not read the little known book that the adventure was based on. Dear author, if you have super cool plot hooks I should not have to read your other book to enjoy them. If you’re going to put the effort into putting a game in front of people give up the goods. Maybe I’ll read your book some other time, but until then stop holding out on me.
As a basic dungeon crawl Undermountain was more accessible in its game play for the players. That may not have been much of a virtue, though I suppose some people will never grow tired of dungeon crawl. One of the reasons that Dark Sun came out on top for me is that it had a clear mandate from the very beginning, to show off the Dark Sun campaign setting. As a result the whole adventure felt very cohesive as though there was a point to all the madness. Undermountain required a little more initial buy in from the players, which I always feel strains things. Other than obvious offer of gold and the meta-game knowledge that if we turn the job down we’re going home, Undermountain provided the characters with very little motivation. Dark Sun’s motivating force, don’t die, can’t be given any credit for originality but at least it did the trick. Undermountain did eventually trap the party in a chilly subterranean tomb, which certainly kept them motivated.
The combat encounters within Undermountain seemed better to me, though with a few obvious exceptions, like the town guard and electric scorpion. In Undermountain the combination of monsters and environmental effects was always fun, some encounters had aging alchemical agents exploding and the first encounter with super dwarf standing guard at the bridge was not to be forgotten. The final fight above the icy river that flowed down waterfalls and rapids and into oblivion was a piece of encounter design mastery. In Dark Sun, fighting in the desert got a little boring. Though each desert fight did have its own battle map, the DM could have just reused the original map and turned it clockwise 45 degrees each fight and the same effect could have been achieved. The combats beneath the mountains and in the jungle did stand out more, but they were book ended by more desert so the overall impression is the same. I felt like the skill challenges in Dark Sun were superior but by the sounds of the feedback that has been received, the quality of the skill challenge hinges upon the skill of the DM.
I got to DM Undermountain and play Dark Sun, and I am glad I was able to do so in that order. I had a very easy time tailoring the story to better suit the personalities at the table and my own DMing style. Whenever there was a leg of the adventure that I felt didn’t work, there was plenty of design space for me to clip and add in my own story elements and mechanics. With a little reinterpretation of the text I was able to bring out some of the good qualities of the story that may have been glossed over otherwise. Dark Sun didn’t feel as open to interpretation. In order to really get the point across the PCs needed to suffer and the adventure frequently walked the fine line between life and death. Given that Athas doesn’t have that high magic feel that Undermountain has; it would have been much harder for the DM to wave fatalities in and out.
All in all, I think if you sat out for this season of Dark Sun then you missed out. I myself am not a stalwart of the setting but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. It sparked my interest in the setting to be sure, but I don’t see myself ever running or playing a campaign in that world. What did you think of Dark Sun? We want to hear your thoughts.
Next week kicks off the start of D&D Encounters Season 3. We’ll continue providing weekly recaps and share our thoughts on how the new D&D Essentials line interacts with D&D Encounters.
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.
If you’re interested in hearing the D&D Encounters: Undermountain and D&D Encounters: Dark Sun as an actual play podcasts you should check out The Shattered Sea’s presentation of both those adventures.