The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Launched at the Winter Fantasy convention (then called D&DXP) in January of 2011, Ashes of Athas was a 4E D&D organized play campaign set in the world of Dark Sun. Each adventure advances the story, beginning with your character being asked to aid a secretive faction of the Veiled Alliance against an unknown assailant. PCs take up the mantle of heroism in the grim and brutal desert world of Athas. The campaign guide provides special rules for character creation to create a true Dark Sun feel.
The campaign concluded in January of 2013, but you can order the adventures by sending a request through the contact form. Your e-mail address must be one which can receive up to 20 MB. Adventures are sent out once I get several requests, distributed in e-mails roughly every month. Content Warning: Dark Sun as a setting contains elements such as slavery and bioessentialism. Even though these elements are portrayed as negative and opposed by heroes, the inclusion of these elements is being reconsidered as their inclusion can be harmful and detrimental to DMs and players. Were we to write the adventures today, we would do so differently. We want you to be aware of these content warnings and we encourage you to adjust the adventures to fit an inclusive style of play. The permission we have to share these adventures does not allow us to change them. Thank you for understanding.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the administrators of the campaign, along with Chad Brown (now at Lone Shark Games) and Derek Guder (Event Programming Manager for Gen Con). One of our core concepts was that your PC would be a central character in the story and have an opportunity to shape the campaign’s future while the PC grows in power and prestige. As admins we focused on delivering a rich story and experimented with unconventional design around encounters, rewards, NPCs, and other elements to achieve that rich story.
One of the innovations of which I am most proud was the death certificate. We wanted the campaign to be challenging, as would fit the campaign world, but PC death can disconnect a player from the campaign, forcing them to become a “new player” again. Each adventure had a handout called the Death Certificate. If your character died you received a copy. It described something special that happened during your death. In one adventure, dealing with aarakocra, an aarakocra scout was watching you. Impressed, they swore to take up your cause. You unlocked the aarakocra race. In addition, because the aarakocra was inspired to look into your life, you retained a working knowledge of what had happened in the campaign and could retain a number of story awards your dead character had earned. This way, death was still part of your experience and your narrative, rather than an abrupt end followed by a new beginning.
I am also proud on our innovations to skill challenges to drive interaction and storytelling, our use of mapless 4E combats, and our unique monsters.
The player-driven nature was no clearer than with the very end, where at the conclusion of a battle interactive the heroes chose how the campaign should end. They chose where they would establish their base of power, how they would protect Athas from the campaign’s villain ever returning, and what their strongest asset (an NPC and friend) should become. Fitting for such a brutal world, sacrifice was involved and the players boldly stepped up when needed.
The campaign was convention-driven with home play. Chapters of three linked adventures were offered at major gaming conventions (Winter Fantasy, Origins, and Gen Con). Some smaller conventions carried the chapters after they premiered, and several are still offering the adventures in 2013. Each adventure is four hours in length, though they may present role-playing opportunities that can extend play if desired. A total of 7 chapters (21 rounds of four-hour adventures) were released over the three years.
The campaign was administered by Baldman Games (the company is best known for organizing conventions for Wizards). Permission to distribute the adventures is granted by Wizards of the Coast and we are supremely thankful for their support.