The Alphastream Game Design Blog

Bringing the Heat – Starting a Dark Sun Campaign

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(Originally posted in 2010 on my WotC blog)

Druid by Michael Vondracek

Druid by Michael Vondracek

Like a druid, DMs bring life to Athas


This week I am writing for the DMs that are taking the intrepid step to create and run their own Dark Sun campaign. My hope is to provide a few ideas on the process that can be used to prepare for a campaign and then some ideas for the type of the campaign. Feedback on how whether this is useful is appreciated. I am starting my own campaign and my current plan is to share ideas as it progresses. I could instead focus less on the campaign side and more on the pure DM side or to some extent on the player side.


You need players

It is very easy to want to write a campaign and then go find players. Don’t. If you don’t have players, your campaign is a creative writing exercise and nothing more. It may also suck the energy out of you. If you are at all like me, you have enough three-ring and spiral-bound pages of creative scribbles. You want a real campaign. Find the players, then spend the time on the campaign!

It can be hard to find good players. Post in game stores, check Meetup, use the new ENWorld service, judge D&D Encounters, go to local conventions, post on WotC forums. If you really feel the need to be creative now, you could write a very short introductory adventure that you can run for players as a one-shot to attract attention. This can be a good way to ensure you like the players. Greg Bilsland has good advice on choosing players on his blog.

Regardless, save your energy and build the campaign once you really know it will get to run.


Taking it all in (especially a deep breath)

So long as you have players, the first step should be a reality check. You want to take a look at the effort your campaign will take and be sure you can provide that effort. Am I really going to commit to making a campaign? Am I going to try to breathe life into the setting, work to create a compelling story, spend hours on NPCs, locations, encounters, rewards, pitfalls, cliffhangers, twists and turns, custom stuff, placating players…?

I do hope that you, like me, answer “yes”. While creating a campaign can be a lot of work, it is also one of the most rewarding endeavors a gamer can undertake. You really get to create. You really get to create an experience that resemble the best of what you like about the game and the setting.

It is useful in this first stage to make some effort towards a realistic time budget. Many questions are worth pondering as you get a feel for how much time you will budget and whether your time and your goals match:

  • Are you taking on something were you use existing materials (published adventures, for example) or creating everything yourself?
  • How far do you want to stray from core rules? Do you want to write down a lot of custom rules?
  • For how long will the campaign run? A few weeks? Months? Years?
  • Will the sessions be weekly? Every other week?
  • Will you spend a few hours each day? A couple of hours on the weekend?
  • Will you prepare a lot up front or just a skeleton of a story and encounters and write each one the week before the session?
  • Will you know the players well enough to understand how receptive they will be to your ideas and for you in turn to gauge their requests? Are they likely to want a very fully-developed campaign or happy with a lean campaign?

As you think through these questions, you may find you want to change some of your assumptions. Maybe you want to put a lot of energy into the campaign, but change it to be just a four-month campaign. Maybe you want to use an existing published adventure series, and modify it. Maybe you want to run a few loosely linked adventures (more of a delve/encounters format) instead of really making it a very robust campaign.

For my campaign, I knew I wanted to do my own thing and not use pre-published adventures. I took some brief looks at my AD&D Dark Sun adventure collection just to get grounded in possibilities, but I am not really going to use more than a few ideas here and there and won’t borrow an entire encounter from anywhere. I want my own custom story. I want to largely use my own NPCs.

I plan on developing a solid storyboard that walks through the campaign (to be honest, I am just about done with final versions. I will come back and talk about the storyboarding process later). I see myself having a very strong sense of what will happen up front, then spending a few hours each week on the upcoming session. I will probably run sessions about every other week. I have DMed enough that I feel good about “winging” a few things and instead putting energy into the setting, reacting to player/PC interests, and focusing on story angles.

I know the players very well. They are pro players that have great tactical and RP minds. These guys will be demanding. At the same time, they are reasonable non-cheesy people that can have a good time. They will cut me slack. My fear is low, my desire to please them high. I can trust them. (Edit: Of course, just an hour ago the miscreants reacted to my suggestion that it would be good for flavor to have a halfling or a thri-kreen in the party with the idea that they make two halflings who walk around inside a thri-kreen carapace costume. I promised a TPK if that happened…)

My own assessment makes it clear I have a lot of work on my plate, but that what I have is manageable… so long as I keep to my promise of not sweating the minutiae around combat encounters. I need to stick to the RP side and wing any rough spots in combats. I will focus on cool stuff in combats rather than sweat exacting balance the way I might when writing Living Forgotten Realms adventures. In assessing my situation I get a strong sense I am choosing the right kind of campaign for me. I want a fresh campaign with strong story, really good RP, some big story surprises… this is gonna be fun and I’m excited to work on it!


Selecting the type of campaign to run

It is also very important early on in the planning stage to think through the types of campaigns you might run. This is about the high-level feel for the kind of campaign, because a campaign should really have story arcs. This could fill its own blog (and I might devote time to it later), but a campaign should have various story elements that unfold over time. There is usually an overarching theme as well. Maybe the overall theme is about helping Tyr recover from the chaos of King Kalak’s demise and would end with something that secures the city against both internal and external threats. In addition, you might have story arcs around a couple of major threats (external and internal) and some ideas for how adventures could change the city and even the PCs. At any point in time, the PCs are “just in an encounter”, but when you step back and look at a few encounters you would notice that there are accomplishments and story unfolding as time progresses. For example, the players might accomplish something that reduces corruption amongst the Templars and changes how the average Tyrian looks at the Templars.

With that in mind, here is a list of high-level campaign concept examples:

  • Help Tyr (the default as presented by the material) protect home-base campaign
  • Veiled Alliance secret rebel campaign
  • Merchant House trade campaign
  • Templar political intrigue campaign
  • Noble House campaign
  • Arena Gladiatorial campaign
  • Exploration/Dungeons within the Tablelands
  • Exploration of distant areas of Athas
  • Restoring Athas
  • Defeating a Sorcerer-King/City-State (or becoming or helping someone become an Avangion) hero campaign
  • More typical adventure plot lines, such as based on an artifact, a particular NPC, a particular foe, etc.

You don’t have to choose just one and each is big enough for a lot of variety or overlap. It is still good to think through the possibilities and see which ones interest you and would make for a good campaign. Let’s explore each of them in some detail.


Help Tyr

This is the default campaign concept. Tyr has overthrown Kalak and there is chaos. Heroes are needed by many organizations (good and bad) to accomplish various tasks. As you climb in prominence, you can be more choosy about employers and probably work increasingly with the city (and probably good people like Agis of Asticles). Tyr, lacking a Sorcerer-King, is a relatively safe home base from which adventures can be staged.

This is an excellent choice for a campaign. Having a safe base of operations is very helpful, especially to new players. The threats are outside, or in parts of the city. It is easy to write episodes and solve them. Linked adventures work really well. The example adventure in the revised second edition boxed set uses this concept.

The campaign focused on Tyr can really swap nicely between focusing inward (stabilize the city) and focusing outward on threats, resources that must be secured, and competition with other City-States. The Prism Pentad novel series is full of ideas. The AD&D sourcebook City State of Tyr is very useful.


Veiled Alliance

A VA campaign is sort of like being a rebel in Star Wars or a spy deep behind enemy lines. You take on secret missions. You work through operatives with code words. You fear templars will find you at any turn. You are forced to deal with shady organizations. Right and wrong can blur together, making for unexpected surprises. The dark side of Athas is easy to capture. Cliff-hangers are very cool and even seemingly unrelated episodes can turn out to be the key to a future adventure. A VA campaign can easily take you to interesting places to gather magical supplies, take out defilers, or undermine other city-states.

This campaign works really well if you have a devious mind to plan things like double-crosses, if you have a solid feel for making believable NPCs (and a good personal bluff check), and if you like the spy or rebel fighter genre. It can be heroic or gritty depending on the players. The Veiled Alliance sourcebook is invaluable for this campaign.


Merchant House

A trader campaign can provide some really cool incentives, in that the work they do is often very measurable. Secure the trade route, start an outpost, find something to strengthen the market at the outpost, take out the competition. The episodes can feel very compelling as they can easily build on each other and give a real sense of gaining something. The PCs can easily climb a hierarchy in a tangible way. Athasian merchant houses can be ripe with intrigue, sending assassin bards and double-crossing traders, but you can keep adjusting to or away from that side to taste. This campaign can very easily take you across Athas and can delve into other campaign types (explorer, Nobles, Templars) pretty easily. It also naturally a great way to take PCs to several different city-states and villages so the players can RP with different cultures. The AD&D sourcebook Dune Trader is very helpful. Elves of Athas can be useful.



Working for Templars is very dangerous, but also very interesting. These are bureaucrats in a incredibly brutal world. They turn on each other in ways resembling Drow houses in other campaign worlds. This can be a challenging dark campaign rich in political intrigue. The PCs might sometimes be given missions that violate their own moral view, creating interesting predicaments. The maneuvering and backstabbing between Templars means their fortunes can rise and fall based on their boss, and their boss may change suddenly!

This campaign is best for advanced DMs and players that really want a lot of RP and enjoy political campaigns. A DM can also run this in a safer way, choosing a Templar that has enough strength to be protected from most of the political intrigue. For example, they might work for a Tyrian Templar and basically have a Help Tyr campaign where they work for a government agent. This can still create interesting conflicts at times – what to do when the VA attacks? If the Templar backs a measure that is not welcomed by former slaves, how do the PCs react? The Veiled Alliance is surprisingly helpful with this campaign and also really does a great job of explaining the differences between Templars in each city-state.


Noble House

A campaign where the PCs serve a particular Noble family can combine short missions and some of the concepts of Merchant or Templar campaigns. Both Templars and merchants will at times be allies and foes, allowing for cross-pollination of ideas and threats. Other noble families may also provide intrigue.

At its simplest, this can work a lot like the concept of a Help Tyr campaign, providing a safe base of operations. A powerful noble family can shield the PCs and allow them to run missions as needed.

The subject of loyalty is an interesting one to explore with a nobility campaign. If they are loyal to the family, PCs may help protect them and help expand the family’s fortunes. Or, the PCs may be slaves that secretly desire freedom and struggle to find a way to achieve it without being punished. Both things can be true… they could be slaves for a kind but traditional noble family. As trusted aids, how will they respond if they have the opportunity to gain freedom without punishment? Perhaps they can change the noble family? Perhaps they can bring it down and join another? How cool would it be to have players divided over which to choose?


Arena Gladiators

This can be a great way to start a campaign. PCs can be lowly slaves with nothing but a bit of bread, some water, and the need to fight to survive. As was shown at Gen Con (and at PAX Prime in September), arena fights can be fantastic fun with a lot of imaginative angles. Competitions can come in various forms and NPCs can be very compelling (including masters, trainers, other gladiators).

The biggest challenge with a gladiatorial campaign is keeping the game fresh. It is easy for the concept to tire. One way to avoid this is to have other entities hire the PCs (allowing them to dabble in other campaign types) or to create different challenges over time. For example, they might start with proving themselves, then have to win a local competition, then establish games with another City-State, then become trainers and create a competition spanning all of the City-States. A second story layer (such as working secretly for the Veiled Alliance) can keep the campaign fresh. The Gladiator’s Handbook can be useful, as can be Slave Tribes.



Exploration campaigns often resemble traditional games where you are hired by various entities to perform tasks. You go to explore some ruins one week, then protect a caravan to a distant settlement the next. Later you escort an employer to the Forest Ridge.

This campaign is usually very stimulating in terms of the locales. You can look at the setting, choose cool places, and have the PCs explore them. You can weave a story that links these places. For example, they may usually work for a Templar who is obtaining old books. Over time, the books provide information on something, which the NPC naturally wants the party to investigate.

This is an excellent choice if you are low on time and if your player base may shift over time. You can devote a little time to a simple concept (recover three books), then unveil the next piece (the books say there is something interesting here) if the players remain interested and you still have time. You can easily pull old material into this kind of campaign. It can play a bit like the Star Trek TV shows, with episodes that are more self-contained and then periodic threads.

Delving beyond the immediate Tablelands area is usually best at higher levels. It can be very cool for players that know the campaign setting and want to experience new concepts, such as a heavy Silt Sea exploration campaign that takes everyone into the Valley of Dust and Fire or to the Deadlands. Exploring can also quickly become a campaign focused around a location such as one of the larger ruined cities.


Restoring Athas

With so much devastation, it can be very interesting to create a campaign where the PCs try to reverse some of the damage. Maybe they want to kill the Dragon. Maybe they hunt a preserver with the power to create rain. Maybe they venture to the Forest Ridge to try to increase its size with magic.

A restoration campaign can be strongly heroic and have a nice mix of accomplishment where the PCs can impact the setting and setbacks where the setting reminds them who is boss (at least sometimes). It can involve high fantasy concepts (powerful beings and artifacts, huge spells/rituals), and other cool ‘movie styled’ events. Their efforts often attract the attention of powerful forces, which can be fun. The PCs may fix something only to bring the threat of it being destroyed by some powerful entity. The Prism Pentad novels also explored this concept. In general it is best to avoid campaigns that will completely change the world unless you are planning to no longer play in the setting afterwards. 4E moved back in time to before the last four books in the Pentad because the changes took players away from the concepts that can be so much fun.


Defeating a SK / Finding an Avangion

In this type of campaign the heroes seek to take down a Sorcerer-King or help undo their influence with the help of someone else. Avangions are natural enemies to Sorcerer-Kings, and can enable PCs that are lower in level to accomplish this task. The PCs may directly wish to eliminate the SK, or they may be more interested in being the champions for a city… and then end up having to fight the SK who would stop them.

This is a high heroism campaign, but setbacks can keep it gritty and interesting. Adventures like Black Sands or Forest Maker show how one might create a lot of intrigue around SKs and involve several powerful forces (both foes and allies). The Dragon Kings hardbound book is very useful.


More traditional concepts

Looking at famous campaigns often show less of a focus on an aspect of the setting and more on a particular story. For example, my favorite Pharaoh AD&D adventure series is all about exploring a series of tombs to unravel an ancient puzzle/prophecy. The Bloodstone series is about stopping a powerful foe/demon. Campaigns can be created around artifacts, around single locations, around a race of creatures, an infestation/invasion by monsters, etc.


Making Decisions

The right campaign may be hard to choose. My advice is to rule out a few and pare down the list to no more than three options. Then just devote one piece of paper to jotting ideas around each of your favorites. I always find this process will make it clear if one is superior to the others. Keep in mind you can always combine aspects, such as gladiators that are owned by a noble house. With your analysis of the time you have available to devote to the campaign, you should have a feel for how much work you can realistically put into designing the campaign.

One final bit of advice. You can’t cover everything. It is ok to leave several topics untouched. After all, you need something for the next campaign!


Next: We will talk about some further steps in the campaign process – storyboarding, story arcs, and helping players get started with PC generation.


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War chariot by Michael Vondracek



This entry was posted on October 2, 2015 by and tagged , .


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