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Athas N W O: My New Dark Sun Campaign / My New DDI Frustrations

dark sun logo transAs I mentioned in a few of my previous blogs, I have started a new Dark Sun Campaign for my Detroit-based gaming group.  This last Friday evening, the campaign, which I have dubbed as Athas: New World Order or Athas:NWO for short, kicked off its first official role-playing session!

[Authors Note: Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the gaming group meets in the burbs, north of Detroit in Auburn Hills.  But as Detroit has more notoriety (and occasionally, infamy) than “AH”, I figure I’d just reference the campaigns locale by the Motor City as opposed to the suburbs.]

Getting it together

The planning for the main campaign story arc was admittedly a lot of work, but I had plenty of resources to make the job easier and more fun too.  To start, I delved deeply into Athasian Lore, riffling through both my Dark Sun Campaign Guide and the Dark Sun Creatures Handbook, with liberal amounts of cross-referencing from materials at Athas.Org .  While some of the older materials have been superseded by newer “official” content, the folks at Athas.Org have collected and created some wonderful Dark Sun “apocrypha”, and there was some awesome fluff material in the articles and ebooks  – even if they were designed for older versions of D&D.

prism pentad 1 coverI decided that the overall story arc of the campaign was going to parallel the major events in Dark Sun novel series, Prism Pentad.  My adventurers will not participate in the events of the series themselves, but will hear about those events as rumors and tales, and possibly meet some of the major characters over the course of their own quests.  I wanted to work on the idea that adventures from the Athas: NWO campaign would actually make major plot points in Prism Pentad possible.  Having my player-characters realize that their actions and adventures made it possible for a major world-changing event in Prism Pentad to occur will undoubtedly give them a real thrill, and make them vicariously part of those momentous events.

And to keep all the plotlines between Athas: NWO and Prism Pentad straight, I ended up using Dave “The Game” Chalker’s 5×5 Grid Method for campaign planning.  I really loved that he assembled all the links to the various blogs and podcasts about the method into his post on Critical last month: The 5×5 Compendium.   If you have never tried using this method, you should try it out, even if your campaign is already underway.  It helps to really keep plotlines from becoming tangled, and makes sure you do not forget minor details that might cause a snag later on in the life of the campaign.

desert of athas coverOf course, I could not start a campaign in Athas without picking up a set of the Desert of Athas Dungeon Tiles for use during encounters.  I have to say that I have mixed feelings about this set compared with previous tiles I have purchased.   The having two full sheets of dungeon tiles devoted to building the 3-D adobe house and stairs, not to mention the boardwalks and wagon, was a little disappointing, particularly when it meant you had to pull in a lot of the smaller tiles just to make a decent sized map.  I am not saying I am unhappy with the 3-D parts – I know I will get good use out of them – but I did have to go out and buy a second set just to have the larger tiles to make my first encounter map.  And frankly, I will probably go out and buy a third set, because now that I have two buildings, I might as well have a third, and still more big tiles for map building – WotC’s sales staff must be rubbing their greasy palms together with glee to hear how their evil scheme to sell more tiles has worked on me.

I Love It When a Group Comes Together

One week prior to the last Friday’s gaming session, I met with all my players, and spent the evening getting everyone’s Athasian Character put together.  Using a Facebook group to disseminate information for several days prior to “character creation night”, I informed the group of what sorts of races I would allow, quick synopses of the changes to racial types, short descriptions of themes, and  other comments about the setting to consider when creating a character in Athas.

I should note that none of the players had ever played in the Dark Sun setting in any previous editions, and the play experience, as well as age varies quite a bit.  My gaming group consists of a twenty-something couple (Jake & Meghann), the teenage brother of Jake (Pete), and two other twenty-something guys (Eric & Bob).  The D&D play experience range from a several years of play (Bob, Jake, & Meghann), to a few years of play (Pete), to almost no play experience at all (Eric).  This makes me, in my late forties (and I just had a birthday yesterday), with over three decades of D&D play, the most experienced D&D player in the room – and even I have no experience in a Dark Sun campaign!

Now there was almost no discussion about what character classes folks were going to play in the FB group thread, and I mentally girded myself for at least one argument over role, if not class.  But as I took each player aside to work on their character, leaving the rest to leaf through the Dark Sun Campaign Guide and play “Fruit Ninja”, I quickly discovered I had little reason for concern.  The group came together, with almost no discussion, in what can only be called a “textbook” optimized party:

  • Defender – Human Battlemind (Jake)
  • Leader – Half-Giant Animist Shaman (Meghann)
  • Controller – Dragonborn Psion (Pete)
  • Ranged Striker – Elf Ranger (Eric)
  • Melee Striker – Halfling Monk (Bob)

I found it interesting that no one chose an arcane class, but then having mainly psionic and primal characters is typically “Athasian” – and I think the idea of arcane defiling, and the negative reaction toward such activities, might have been a deterrent.

But it was in the midst of all this character creation that I ran into my first frustration with the new DDI Character Builder – it is just not a group-friendly package…

Character Builder Conundrum

Between myself and the five players in my gaming group, there are only two active DDI accounts.  One is mine – no surprise there – which I use for Dungeon Mastering, as well as to help research my blogs and product reviews.  The other belongs to Jake & Meghann, which they use jointly as a couple – and really, it would not make a lot of sense for them to have two completely separate DDI subscriptions!  As Eric is a relative D&D “newbie”, I would not expect him to grab a DDI subscription as yet, and Pete is a teen, which means he is perpetually broke, which we all were when we were his age.  Bob is in my Toledo D&D Group as well, in fact I carpool with him to Ohio, and he has always “borrowed” my account to work on his characters.

That said, we could really only work on one Dark Sun character at a time – which was not a bad thing from my perspective, as I wanted one-on-one time with my players as they went through the process.  It also meant I had access to all the characters, which is not a bad thing from a DM standpoint.

[Editor's Note: As I have been informed that there is an EXPORT feature in the online Character Builder which I missed, I have removed my comment on the frustration over not being able to port characters.]

On the downside, editing and leveling up DS characters is still going to present the challenge of having some members of the group without a subscription. Unlike the old “local drive” version of Character Builder, if folks made a character change, they would fire up their own version – which used to allow multiple user per subscription – and they would just email me the updated .dnd4e file.  But with no multi-user features, when only one user at a time can make changes to their character, the new online version of CB is flat-out less group-friendly around “level-up” time.

If I had my way, I’d still prefer to use the old CB to design the characters to keep the multi-user feature.  But regretfully, WotC withheld putting Dark Sun material into Character Builder for MONTHS, waiting until the online version was launched before adding that content.  And given the complexity of DS characters, with themes, inherent bonuses, wild psionic talents, and other campaign specific content, one needs Character Builder more than ever to create their Athasian hero.

Encounter Designing with Speedbumps

The new online version of Monster Builder also presented my with new DDI woes as I worked to create encounters for the first play session.  Unlike the old version, the online version contains the Dark Sun Creature Catalog, which pretty much makes it required during the encounter design process, unless I am building a monster from the scratch.

However, given that a Dungeon Master cannot copy a monster design in RTF or .img format to add to the encounter document (such as Word) in the new online Monster Builder, having all the Athasian monsters in there is not particularly helpful at all.  I understand that there is some concern about piracy, but not being able copy monster stat blocks into an encounter write-up is just absolutely frustrating.  I ended up figuring out a work-around, by printing the monster stat blocks to PDF – which only allows one block per page, I might add – then compiling the pages with my encounter text, and voilà – encounter text and monster stat blocks in one big document!  Not the best format I’ve seen, but it gets the job down – and now with only twice the number of steps for the Dungeon Master to have to go through to write his encounters!

Of course, this would not have been an issue if WotC had put the Dark Sun creature content in the old version of Monster Builder.  But like the rest of the DS campaign material, it was withheld from release until these new online DDI tools could be built – and which, in many cases, still fail to work as well as the old programs!

A Suggestion to WotC about DDI

Given that WotC is in the business to sell books, their current DDI subscription offerings just do not make any sense.  Concerns of piracy aside, a D&D gamer need only buy a DDI subscription and then wait long enough, and the content from monster manuals and sourcebooks will eventually become available for them to use – sans fluff, but complete in crunch.

If WotC really wanted to make a DDI subscription tied-in to book purchases, as well as to make it more like other, MMO-based, buy-to-play content, then here’s what they need to do:

  • Cut the price of DDI subscriptions in half – subscriptions are just a bonus feature, not the main content here.
  • Only provide core book content and online magazine content to Character Builder and Compendium.
  • Put a “registration” code in each source book, monster manual, or boxed product, which will unlock that specific content in Character Builder and Compendium.

So when the gamer enters the code from their sourcebook into their DDI subscription, that new content becomes available on their particular account.  I think more people would be inclined to buy books, as well as own a subscription, if the subscriptions were cheaper and the books granted them access to the material online.  One could even offer a virtual library to “licensed” subscribers, with an online version of a “registered” sourcebook being accessible to a particular account no matter where the owner is – no more need to carry around a stack of books to a D&D game!

To make DDI more group friendly, offer associate-users to a DDI account at a small additional charge, out to a maximum of 6 gamer.  This would allow multiple users to utilize the features on a single DDI subscription – and let’s face it, players are not going to buy every book like a DM is – and to use Character Builder as much as they like.  Associate-users would also gain access to reading Dragon and Dungeon articles, but not download them.  Only allow the main user to utilize download the online magazines, browse their online library, and use the Adventure Tools, but let everyone have access to VTT.  Now you have a scalable DDI Subscription plan that not only encourages book purchases, but makes it possible for gaming groups to use the online tools as needed.

We march on…

But at least in the meantime, my Dark Sun campaign is off to a great start, and the players are very enthusiastic about the game!  We have had our first combat, and the characters acquitted themselves very well against a pack of marauding elf bandits, and the group is already showing signs of team-thinking and some exciting synergy.  While the DDI Online Tools look they will still be less than user-friendly for the foreseeable future, I am sure my group will muddle through and begin to explore the dangers, intrigues, and wonder that Athas: NWO has to offer!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Have you tried using the Dark Sun material provided in the DDI Character Builder and Monster Tools yet?  Do you like the new online version of the tools, or prefer the older programs?  Any advice to pass on to a new Dark Sun DM?  As always, your comments and feedback are most welcome!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


7 Responses to “Athas N W O: My New Dark Sun Campaign / My New DDI Frustrations”

  1. WolfSamurai says:

    You’ve hit on a lot of my problems/concerns with the current edition of the Character Builder and Monster Builder. And it’s why I let my DDI sub expire last month. Because even though it doesn’t have all the newest content, I still feel I have more functionality and versatility from the old downloadable versions of both programs. The new CB has a lot of nice things and in some ways is better than the old, but the limitations that are there frustrated me.

    The fact that the new Monster Builder doesn’t really let you build or modify monsters to any great extent is a giant strike against it and not being able to save the block as an .rtf file is just as bad since I use a combat manager program to both build and then manage my encounters. For me it’s actually better to build the DS monsters in the old MB than it is to use the online version.

    I’m kind of glad I’m not playing or DMing Dark Sun because, as you say, these tools are almost mandatory there. And I can say that having made 2 4e Dark Sun characters by hand and designed a DS delve.

  2. Perico says:

    For what it’s worth, the online Character Builder has had an Import/Export feature for a while now. It’s located in the “Load character” screen, though, which is not particularly intuitive, so I’m not surprised that you missed it.

  3. froth says:

    you can export

  4. Dave T. Game says:

    Happy birthday :)

    For what it’s worth, they did serious research right when DDI launched about the code idea, and they reported huge pushback from retailers and major other pain in the ass factors as a result (mis-used codes, and whatnot.)

    Selling physical books isn’t the push anymore. I do agree that there need to be more subscription models of varying prices, otherwise, sharing with a group makes the most sense still.

  5. Well I retract my comment about the Character Builder Export feature – and frankly, I’m thrilled to know that it is there. It will make things much easier for my players. As for the rest, I am still bummed about Monster Builder in its current beta format, and hope that greater functionality is included in the months to come.

    @Dave – I was unaware about that they tossed around the code idea, and I’m chagrined that it was scrapped. I still think it would have worked well – video games have been using registration codes with relative success for years. And I too keep hoping to see some changes in subscription types, and I think the “one-size-fits-all” model really needs to be addressed.

  6. Dave T. Game says:

    Video games can stay sealed in stores, but if you seal up books in game stores… well, it’s happened before, and it’s not pretty. On most of these corporate level things, it’s important to remember that it’s not like they just haven’t thought about it, there’s a lot of factors we might not see from our side as consumers. It’s fine to wish things were different (like different subscription models or that the new monster builder didn’t blow or any PDFs whatsoever) but I find it’s shaky to try and suggest new business operations for companies when we don’t have all the data they do.

  7. Dave Graybeal says:

    Michael, I left you a message on your myspace. I’m interested in finding out some more information about your D&D group. I’m from the area, and was just unsure what would be the best way to contact you. Shoot me an e-mail or look me up on facebook if you’ve got time. Thanks.

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