No matter how well they do, at some point the PCs are discovered, captured, and brought before Hamanu. – Dragon’s Crown, pg. 33
Oh, the railroad. At some point adventures from TSR transitioned from open-ended affairs to highly structured stories. Some people place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Tracey and Laura Hickman, though this seems a bit unfair. With all the tournament modules that came out in the late 70s and early 80s, it seems like there was always an element of highly structured play available as part of the experience of D&D.
I don’t think railroad games are inherently terrible, but making players play the railroad portions out is definitely stupid. If the adventure you are playing only makes sense if certain situations happen you are probably better off being upfront about that and simply narrating what needs to take place. Otherwise you are wasting everyone’s time.
Freedom, another Dark Sun adventure is even worse when it comes to railroading.
Because the PCs must be captured, the Part One encounters are unfair. One or more PCs will be prisoners after each encounter. No player actions short of the miraculous will save the PCs from eventual capture, arrest, or enslavement.
Why not just start the adventure with the players captured? I can see how organically you could slowly end up sending the PCs to the slave pits: it’s a harsh setting after all. Something about the way this is presented seems obnoxious. But look, there are even dumber examples of railroading in the adventure:
For the purposes of Freedom, you do not want the PCs to escape unless a specific encounter calls for escape. The players, on the other hand, will certainly try to escape. All their attempts should fail. Still the players must believe they had a fair chance to succeed. The following tactics let you program fair failure for the PCs, both thwarting and rewarding their escape attempts. – Freedom, part 2 introduction
Who green lit this module? Freedom is such a spectacularly bad adventure.
I found City by the Silt Sea refreshing because it felt different than most of the other 90s-era D&D books I had read. There are probably lots of modules like this one, though it feels like at the time they were few and far between.
Though the adventure is presented in a particular order, each encounter is designed to stand alone. Like building blocks they form an interesting whole while piled together, but how you stack them is left to each DM. – City by the Silt Sea, pg 5
There has been lots written about railroads in the OSR blogosphere. Most recently, Justin Alexander covered this topic quite well: The Railroading Manifesto.
I recall really looking forward to the release of City by the Silt Sea. The cover art by Brom was pretty spectacular. I was a big fan of the Dark Sun books that revealed more about the history of the world. City by the Silt Sea is one such book, all about the ruined city of Giustenal. The city is mentioned very briefly in the original Dark Sun boxed set. This boxed set expands those few paragraphs into a campaign book, an adventure book, a monster booklet, 4 cards with useful information for the DM, and a big poster map by Diesel of Giustenal and its environs.
The campaign booklet for City by the Silt Sea opens with a brief history of the ruined city of Giustenal. I suspect the expectation is that most Dark Sun DMs have read Troy Denning’s novels, as this overview is pretty high level. The booklet expands on the story of the world revealed thus far by introducing another Sorcerer-King Dregoth who was betrayed and murdered by his fellow Sorcerer-King. Unfortunately for them he now lives under his ruined city-state as a Dragon-Lich, and is looking to have his revenge on the world. In this opening chapter we quickly learn about his rise and fall, and what he’s been up to the last 2000 or so years.
The next few sections of the campaign book detail the various places adventure can take place in and around Giustenal. Starting with a zoomed out view of the region, the book looks at nearby cities and adventure hooks to get people to Giustenal. From there the book moves on to the dangers that surround the ancient city, and what’s involved in safely making it inside. Making it into Giustenal is tricky: much of the city is under the sea of silt, and the more obvious routes in are blocked by huge tar pits. There are also a few interesting NPCs that players can befriend or battle. The ruins and dangers of the ancient city itself are covered next, including a look at a couple passageways that lead to the catacombs and ancient cities that lay under Giustenal. There are actually four cities underneath Giustenal: the Sunken city, the Goaning City, Kragmorta, and New Giustenal. Each of these places is described in turn with a brief history, followed by adventuring locations and NPCS and monsters of note. The last section of the book is a look at Dregoth and the new race of creatures he has created since becoming a dragon, the Dray. Compared to a lot of the other Dark Sun settings books I’ve read this one feels really on point.
The adventure described in the adventure book is presented in an unusual fashion. Each chapter more or less maps to a corresponding chapter in the settings book, and simply lists a series of possible encounters that would make sense in that locale. Each encounter follows the following format: there is a setup, that explains when the encounter should take place, some read aloud text to start the encounter, the details of what happens during the encounter, what the possible outcomes could be and what they mean for the PCs, and finally what the next possible encounters could be. The encounters can be played in a mixed order, skipped, etc. The adventure book is designed to facilitate players simply exploring the region in and around Giustenal. There is also an overarching quest that is barely hinted at for players and dungeon masters who are into that sort of thing.
The poster map as well as the maps inside the two books are all done by Diesel. I am a big fan of his maps. He does a really good job of illustrating the various locations outlined in the book. The remaining interior artwork is by Tom Baxa, of course. There are lots of illustrations, of varying quality.
The monster booklet and DM cards round out the boxed set. The new monsters are really par for the course for Dark Sun. Notable at the time was that Dregoth was the first Sorcerer-King with actual statistics.
After re-reading the other Dark Sun settings books last year I was getting worried that the whole line may have actually been terrible and I was just too stupid to notice. Thankfully I genuinely liked City by the Silt Sea. I would go so far as to call it good. This review was prompted by the re-release of this product as a PDF by Wizards of the Coast.
As far as I can tell, TSR put out four splat books for Dark Sun that were very similar in their presentation: Elves of Athas, Dune Trader, Slave Tribes, and Veiled Alliance. Each book takes a look at a particular group, with the bulk of the books being write ups of example factions: with Elves of Athas you had example elf tribes; with Dune Trader you had example trading houses; and with Slave Tribes you had example slave tribes. Having reviewed the previous three books, it seems only fitting I take a look at the last one, Veiled Alliance by Allen Varney.
Veiled Alliance takes its name from the secret society of magic users that the book covers. The book opens with two totally throw away chapters about the alliance in general. Most of the information is silly, boring, or uninspired. You could probably just drop these chapters completely or shrink them greatly and jump to the meat of the book, the descriptions of the alliance chapters in each city-state.
One thing that makes this book interesting is that it expands on the information available about the various city-states in Athas in general. Each city-state is discussed briefly before moving on to the alliance chapter that operates within it. For each alliance chapter we learn: how to make contact with the group, how they initiate new recruits in to their order, their history, their leadership (NPCs) and information about their hideout. The fact the various alliance chapters have hideouts strikes me as odd, since the first chapter describes the alliance structure as being organized like a terrorist cell: small groups that are only aware of a few other cells. Why would an organization like that need a place to hang out? Each section also has some example adventure hooks, some better than others.
On the whole Veiled Alliance just isn’t very good. It’s definitely the weakest of these four splat books. All of these books have been overly verbose, but this one really does feel like it is mostly filler with all the tangential information about the city-states. The book does do a good job at showcasing what different sorts of Veiled Alliance themed adventures might look like. Each alliance chapter is reasonably different than the next. If you’re looking for used Dark Sun books, this feels like one you could safely skip.
Slave Tribes is one of the first Dark Sun splat books I bought to help me run the epic D&D campaign I never ended up running. It’s authored by Bill Slavicsek, who went on to write Elves of Athas and several other books for the setting.
If these recent reviews1 all start to sound the same, it’s because these Dark Sun splat books are all quite formulaic. Slave Tribes is structured and written in a manner very similar to Elves of Athas and Dune Trader. Once more we have a book describing some niche of Athasian society: in this books case we are obviously looking at slavery and the slave tribes–slaves who have escaped their bondage and formed their own communities.
The book presents in some detail several slave tribes. For each tribe we learn the following things: their organization, their means of existence, their origin, their location and how their village is defended, their relationship with others, how one joins the tribe, and important NPCs. Each tribe’s settlement (or caravan in one case) is described with a keyed map. This section is the bulk of the book. Most of this material seems designed to help you run these tribes in a game. Some tribes could serve as allies to a group of PCs, while some tribes will make excellent enemies.
The book begins with an overview of slavery in Athas, which isn’t particularly interesting or informative. This is followed by the description of slave tribes discussed above. That section is followed by an uninspiring discussion of life in a slave tribe. The book ends with advice on how to create a slave tribe. It more or less outlines how to produce an example tribe similar to ones found in the book. There are some lacklustre random tables to help you get started.
The interior art work is all by Baxa. If you don’t like Baxa’s artwork, you definitely won’t like his early artwork. The cover is by Brom and is super cool.
Slave Tribes is a thoroughly middle of the road splat book. There is lots of material, i’m just not sure how useful it actually is. With all of these books the presentation is so verbose I feel like a DM would need to make their own notes to help keep things straight. Still, someone else has done a lot I work for you if you need some factions and fleshed out NPCs for your game.
The last of this series of splat books is the Veiled Alliance, which I plan to read next.
The last of my recent Dark Sun purchases I read was Dune Trader. The book is a detailed look at the merchants and merchant houses of Athas. It’s similar to Elves of Athas and Slave Tribes in its overall structure: a detailed look at specific merchant houses in Athas is followed by some more general exposition on mercantile adventure.
A good chunk of the book is spent describing various factions: in this book’s case trading houses and dynasties. The major trading house of each city state is discussed. Their history, assets, current situation, how they treat people in their employ, and important NPC are all covered in some detail. This is followed by a chapter on some small trading houses, and then a chapter on Elf tribes that engage in mercantile endeavours. As with Elves of Athas, these chapter are all full adventure seeds and hooks. Between the two books, I think Elves of Athas does a better job here: these chapters in Dune Trader feel a bit too anthropological. The long history of a particular merchant house might make for some interesting flavour, but it’s probably not that useful while constructing an adventure. A lot of this book felt like fiction for people who enjoy the historical appendices or digressions often found in fantasy novels. That was certainly a part of Elves of Athas, but it felt to me like there was more going on in that book.
The end of Dune Trader includes a lot of useful information. Examples of how to run a trading campaign are discussed in some detail, with a basic set of rules on how to govern the supply and demand of trade goods. There are also examples of different sorts of trade caravans in case you wanted to run an adventure raiding or defending a caravan. There is also an example elven market and an example trade fort. A new class, the Trader, is discussed, but it strikes me as a bit silly.
I liked Dune Trader, but it’s probably pretty middle of the road as TSR splat books go. I think it would definitely be handy if you’re interested in running a Dark Sun campaign where the merchant houses play an important role, but I feel like it spends too much time trying to develop the canon of Dark Sun, and not enough time trying to show you interesting examples of what you could do with the merchant houses of Athas.
Elves of Athas is an early supplement for the AD&D 2nd Edition setting Dark Sun. The book pulls in details from the Troy Denning Dark Sun novels to present a fuller picture of what makes Elves different on Athas from those found in other typical fantasy campaigns. Most of the book is what people refer to as fluff: setting description and flourish. As such it can be used with a variety of rule sets beyond 2nd Edition.
The first half of the book is about Elf culture, physiology, miscellaneous new rules, and minutia. This part of the book fleshes out a lot of what was already said in the Dark Sun box set. I didn’t think it was that interesting on the whole. It’s probably more useful for people who haven’t read any of the Dark Sun novels.
I found the later half of the book more compelling: it describes various Elf Tribes found on Athas. The tribes are described in a good amount of detail: what their motivations are, their history and current situation, how they treat outsiders, who their allies and enemies are, what regions of Athas they live in, and finally some important NPC. This section is all plot hooks and adventure seeds. It also makes for a good example of how to describe a faction in your game world, though for your own game you probably aren’t trying to hit page count goals and could be more terse in your presentation.
Unlike many of the Dark Sun books, there is no art by Tom Baxa to be found in this book. The interior art for Elves of Athas was done by Tony DiTerlizzi, who would go on to illustrate Planescape. The art work is quite good, but also feels quite different from the coarse line art of Baxa and Brom. My copy of the book was bought used, so it was sadly missing the poster map featuring some DiTerlizzi that was supposed to come with the book.
As supplements go I thought this book was pretty good. Like most TSR splat books, it uses more words than it needs to in order to make its points, but there is still a lot of fun stuff for DM and players here.
I remember wanting Dragon’s Crown when it was announced by TSR oh so many years ago. It was probably the last piece of D&D I lusted after before I stopped playing the game. There were ads announcing its arrival in Dragon magazine and in the back of some of my other Dark Sun books. I’m guessing I didn’t buy it for one of the following reasons: it wasn’t stocked by Ron’s Comic Shop, my source for D&D in the 90s; it was too expensive; or I had stopped playing by the time it came out. The fact I probably didn’t need a high level adventure for a Dark Sun campaign I wasn’t actually running would have never entered into the equation.
Dragon’s Crown is a high-level epic adventure set in Athas. It involves psionics, sorcerer-kings, secret orders and other nonsense, and is exactly the sort of crazy boxed set adventure you could expect from mid-90s TSR. It’s actually made up of 7 interconnected mini-adventures. There is an 8th adventure that is full of little encounters you can intersperse throughout the series.
It’s interesting looking at an adventure like Dragon’s Crown after buying and reading so many “old-school” modules. Dragon’s Crown expects things to play out in a certain way, and there is a fair amount of exposition on what to do if your players try to get off the rails. Still, there are lots of maps and set pieces: I feel like you could use a lot of the adventure in a giant sandbox game.
You can get used copes of Dragon’s Crown for $20-$40 dollars by the looks of things, depending on what condition you want your copy to arrive in. When I was 14 that was some serious walking around money. Now? Not so much. It’s a shame I don’t have the spare time I did when I was 14 now.