Fury Road

Like many other people but not as many as those who went to see Pitch Perfect 2, I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road.

This is an interesting movie. I have some things to say about it, hopefully without giving away too much.

Matt Colville​, always an interesting commentator on movies, had some thoughts about it too, though his is more spoiler-y. You can read about his impressions here.

I think it is interesting as a note about our society that our artistic movies, our commentary movies, our movies about who we are as a people, are now this filled with violence and dystopia. I suppose though that for anyone who grew up in the '80s in the U.S. this is nothing new. We all lived under the spectre of mutually-assured destruction and the fear of imminent nuclear Armageddon.

Fury Road is, basically, a two-hour car chase, one that goes back and forth and winds up ending where it started. Of course, that's how many good stories work: Something happens to change the status quo, characters leave their home and come back wiser, sometimes upending the society upon their return. That's basically the formula here, and it works very well, because the characters reveal themselves in the journey and the movie is very tightly wound, with pretty much every element that's introduced important either as a catalyst to a later event or due to its symbolic power.

I feel like Fury Road is a movie that you can get a lot of meaning out of, but what meaning you get will be largely based on your own interpretation. I feel like George Miller made a spectacular romp, knowing exactly what he could get away with in terms of story and action and CGI, and he made many events that matter as the movie unfolds, but a lot of meaning in it is based on what you decide to apply to it.

The brief opening mention of oil wars and water wars should sound familiar to anyone living in California. It's a future that we simultaneously tell ourselves will never happen while secretly dreading that it's just around the corner. This is perhaps important to Max's characterization; he's a shellshocked survivor from a world mostly familiar to us, trapped in a hellscape of our creation.

This is one of the important parts of Mad Max's dystopias: They aren't of an Earth destroyed by a meteor or a volcano. They're destroyed by us. In all of Miller's Mad Max movies, there's some kind of cult-like leader figure (the Night Rider, Lord Humungus, Aunty Entity, etc.) who's building their own society from the ruins of the old world. As the movies become increasingly bleak and dystopian, these leaders become more and more wrapped up in eccentricities, in religious trappings, and in their grip on control of the precious resources of life. Even trampled, the world can support a little bit of life, but just like a two-headed lizard, life takes on strange forms when it's put under such pressure.

In Fury Road, Max tackles the question left hanging at the end of Beyond Thunderdome: Where is there to go? Where's the promised land? Where can we make a new home? Obviously the viewer knows that Max will never find a new home. His old home is dead and destroyed and all he has left is wandering and survival. With Fury Road, Max goes out to help look for a new home, but in the end he says, there is no new home. There is only the home you have. It's up to you to make it worth living in.

To me, this is inspirational. It's one of those moments where I take meaning from the movie that might or might not be intended, as I mentioned earlier. Max is dragged into a dysfunctional society of warriors who live in what could be a paradise, but it's under the thumb of a diseased dictator (a familiar and recurring trope of Miller's). At first, some people want to escape. They want to find another paradise, a promised land where they can raise children and live in green and have peace. After all their struggles, though, Max tells them bluntly, there is no promised land. Out there is nothing but desolation and death. If you want to live in a peaceful, green, flourishing society, you must make it. You must take it from the hands of tyrants and shape it into the paradise that you dream about.

The parallels of this message, the message that there's nowhere else to go so you have to make your home livable, with the offhand comment early in the movie about "water wars" is obvious. It's a kind of ecological litany crossed with an invocation against tyranny. We only have one world to live on, and if we overtax it and make it poisonous to us, if we let tyrants control the water and the green and all that lives and grows, it will choke us and kill us. The only thing we can do is try to turn the home that we have into the paradise that it could be, and to do that we must overthrow the tyrants who want to control all of the life and poison all the minds of its people. And Mad Max doesn't shy away from saying that many will die along the way, and many will never see that promised land. Even innocents. Children. Unborn babies. They will be casualties of these struggles. Because just as Max is desperate to survive at any cost, if humans are to survive we will have to pay costs for the horrors that we've racked up. But there's nowhere else to go, nobody out there who will swoop in and save us, so it's up to us to figure out how to make our world one that we can live in.

Another message that I took away is that of consequences. Arguably that's just good plotting: every significant action has a consequence down the road. You accidentally nick someone's leg while wildly firing a gun, and it's that injury that leads to the victim's death later. You establish that Max is an unwitting life-giver -- he's a universal blood donor -- and this ties him to other unwitting life-givers, when the tyrant of the piece tries to claim them all as property.

There's a lot of transformation, too. The movie's replete with chains. Chains are constantly used to hold people back, to turn them into chattel. Those chains must be cut or thrown off in order to move forward. Yet those same chains can bring people together, force them to cooperate or help them to work for a bigger cause that they can't do alone. It's pretty straightforward symbolism, but it feels like it's pointing to the idea that there are symbols in this movie, here's an obvious one, now go find more. The chains point toward other bindings: masks, chastity belts, artificial pieces made to bind people; it's when they are removed or cast off that people are able to develop bonds to each other and form their own road community. Every one in Max's unwitting band undergoes some kind of transformation along the way, whether learning to fight, exchanging dreams of the past for a hope of a new kind of future, or from living to dead. Max is looking for that transformation - he wants to leave behind his nightmares and be at peace with himself - but he gets something else instead: He succeeds in helping someone he cares about. This is important because it's something he was never able to do before. His wife and son were murdered. The peaceful inhabitants of the refinery were killed en masse and then forced out of their home. The children hoping to go to the Promised Land in Beyond Thunderdome . . .  well we don't really know what happened to them but the implication in Fury Road is, nothing good. This time, Max connects with someone -- he doesn't want to, but he can't help it -- and he saves them. He makes things better. His destructive power, channeled in concert with a glimmer of hope for a new world, becomes a revolutionary force.

You can find other messages in Fury Road, too, whether feminist or fascist or futhark. Some are uplifting, some are horrific, but that's the funny thing about our world: It's full of things wonderful and terrible. Mad Max's world is pretty awful with glimmers of good. So how good do we have it, in our world that's pretty good with some pieces of pure nastiness? And how much will it take for us to take responsibility and keep our world from sliding down from pretty good to pretty bad?

Also, lots of cars explode.

"Don't Grieve, Admiral."

"Don't grieve, Admiral."

These simple words are some of Spock's last as he's dying from radiation burns in the warp core of the Enterprise while fighting to save the crew during the Wrath of Khan. It is a curious choice of phrase.

Spock can't tell Kirk "I know you are hurting." He can't say "I did this because of my love for my captain and my crew." He can't let anyone know what he feels.

"I have been, and always shall be, your friend."

And an unlikely friendship, between passion and logic, the connection of reason with intuition. There's so much unspoken under what Spock says. Don't grieve -- not because I am telling you not to hurt; not because I am telling you not to care; because I know you care, I know you hurt, but I am telling you in the only way that I can that what I have done was logical; I made a choice to sacrifice for people because I, too, cared about them. So don't grieve, because it is not a pointless death or an empty death. It is a logical death, and if I could feel, I would tell you that it is the death that I chose because of my love for my crew and captain.


The final word to McCoy, the rival, who becomes the unlikely acolyte. A note which triggers McCoy's response later: "You know, he's not really dead, as long as we remember him." Because we all remember him. We remember the part of us that he touched, the part that lives on in our minds. In the case of McCoy this touch was literal. For the rest of us, though, it will live on through the experiences we shared.

We remember.

Running Pathfinder: The Adventure Paths

While my last article discussed a bit of Pathfinder's Kingmaker adventures and their specialty rules for building kingdoms, I figured that I would take a quick detour (and buy myself some time to work on the additional construction material for elven and dwarven themed kingdoms) to write a little bit about Paizo's market strategy with Adventure Paths.

For those who're not big-time role-playing game aficionados, Paizo is the publisher for the Pathfinder game, which is essentially the half-step adopted successor to 2000's Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. Pathfinder is, by several metrics, very successful and quite a competitor with D&D as far as sales and brand loyalty in the role-playing game market. This should not be a surprise, because Paizo is under the watchful gaze of Lisa Stevens, who's been keen on industry opportunities for over twenty-five years at this point and is one savvy businesswoman -- especially for a business sector that's generally pretty low-profit.

Anyway, Paizo regularly publishes "Adventure Paths," which are monthly adventures that connect in a six-episode arc designed to carry your game group from introduction (brand-new characters) all the way to a heroic conclusion (at the upper tiers of gameplay, as mighty adventurers with a history of many victories). This means that Paizo publishes two complete series of adventures every year. Their other releases often synergize with this: If the current adventure takes place in the River Kingdoms, there's also a Guide to the River Kingdoms. If you're exploring a crashed spaceship, there's a Guide to Technology in that release cycle. It's a very smart release strategy and it's certainly no accident.

The current iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, the fifth edition, is positioning to emulate this -- to some degree. At least one industry survey found that the typical fantasy gaming campaign lasts for about a year, and the new D&D has opened up with one-year story arcs. Last year was the Tyranny of Dragons story arc; this year it's Elemental Evil. Each story arc gets a campaign sourcebook detailing the particulars of that campaign, and some adventure support -- in the case of last year's Tyranny of Dragons arc, via the third-party publisher Kobold Press, under the guidance of the effulgently creative designer Wolfgang Baur. (You've heard his name before if you're an old hand with D&D -- he is, after all, for whom the Bauriar of Planescape are named.)

The problem that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast has with D&D right now is that their publication schedule is basically sticking them with one book for the whole year. This causes a loss of momentum in the customer base. People want to be excited about upcoming releases, and one campaign sourcebook -- with the adventurer's handbook to go with it, chock full of meaty new character-creation goodness, cancelled and turned into a PDF -- isn't cutting it. Folks are looking at their D&D sourcebooks, saying "That's it?" and looking around bored, wondering what to do next. The loss of momentum is going to cause people to drift away from the brand and seek something more dynamic with more frequent support. (Wizards of the Coast's design department is in a tough nut here, though. Too many books cause feature bloat and make it impossible to support the game. Too few mean not enough releases to sustain interest and sales. They could probably get away with doing something closer to Paizo's model, releasing smaller amounts of content every month or two -- or subcontracting that out to other companies -- and tying a lot of their game rules updates into that content in small bite-sized chunks, but they aren't doing so and nobody seems to know why they're so hesitant to license out for other companies to help out with the small-run publication of adventures and support.)

So, aside from having an aggressive release schedule that supports the sale of other setting books, Paizo is also eating Hasbro/WotC's lunch by reprising everything popular that D&D players have loved, and going through that with their releases. A significant chunk of Paizo's adventure paths -- say, maybe half of them -- have storylines that are pretty close to some of the very early D&D modules that are known by, loved by, and popular with old hands of the role-playing game field. Let's have a look . . .

Release # Adventure Path Notes
1 Rise of the Runelords Your basic "Evil is awakening, fight your way through a series of dungeons to defeat it!" Straight-up boilerplate out-of-the-box epic adventure.
2 Curse of the Crimson Throne Fresh off a dungeon saga, Paizo says “You like that? We’re gonna do something wildly different,” and throws players into a court intrigue and political gamesmanship campaign.
3 Second Darkness Fight against the dark elves and their attempt to take over the world, starting with a major metropolis on the surface and tracing back to their demonic roots deep underground! It’s the old drow series of modules: D1-3, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and Vault of the Drow.
4 Legacy of Fire Strange events are afoot in a desert landscape where two warring factions invoked genies to do battle. Sounds suspiciously like the infamous Desert of Desolation modules I3-5: Pharaoh, Oasis of the White Palm, and Lost Tomb of Martek.
5 Council of Thieves A corrupt city in an evil empire is the source of all manner of hellish problems, as the heroes infiltrate criminal enterprises while evading the wickedly malevolent forces of the ruling class. Some similarities to Iuz the Evil, the sourcebook of Greyhawk’s evil kingdom ruled by an evil demigod.
6 Kingmaker Explore the wilderness, build a kingdom, then defend it. This is essentially the main thrust of D&D development in 1st edition AD&D and in the D&D basic and later boxed sets: When you have had enough adventures to become powerful leaders, you settle some lands, fight off monsters, and become a local baron or other noble and collect taxes while fending off rivals. The D&D Companion Set also had a system for domain building and management, something that Kingmaker also includes as an integral component.
7 Serpent’s Skull Shipwrecked on a jungle shore, the party eventually reaches a dangerous trade city and uncovers activities of a deadly cult of serpent people. Some similarities to I1, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, which featured serpent cultists in a desolate city deep in the jungle, as well as N4 Treasure Hunt, which has the party shipwrecked. Also echoes of C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, with its jungle crossing to a ruined ancient temple.
8 Carrion Crown Horror adventures in a grim, haunted kingdom. Very much in the vein of I6 Ravenloft.
9 Jade Regent Escort a caravan and a few local friends across the North Pole to reach the far east and establish one of them as the rightful ruler of a distant fantasy Japan-themed kingdom.
10 Skull & Shackles Escape from captivity on a pirate ship and become pirates yourselves, then fight for the pirates and traders of your independent archipelago. Opens similarly to the aforementioned N4 Treasure Hunt with the players enslaved on a ship, then goes straight into Pirates of the Caribbean territory.
11 Shattered Star The players find themselves roped into re-assembling the Sihedron, a powerful artifact that was broken into seven pieces long ago. Very close concept to the Rod of Seven Parts. Same number of pieces, even!
12 Reign of Winter Baba Yaga and Rasputin show up to bring eternal winter to the fantasy Russia analog. Naturally the fact that it has Baba Yaga means there’s a content connection to the module The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga, though there’s a lot more going on in this adventure path.
13 Wrath of the Righteous Descend into a massive hell-scar to fight demons and try to save the world. Features the special mythic hero rules, as one might expect. This somewhat mirrors the Bloodstone series H1-4, which had the players going to Hell to steal an artifact from a demon prince and was recommended for characters up to level 100 (that is, mythic!).
14 Mummy’s Mask Fight the cult of an ancient undead god-king in fantasy Egypt analog land. Has some similarities to Gygax’s Necropolis supermodule hardcover and to module RA3 Touch of Death.
15 Iron Gods Explore tech-dungeons from pieces of a crashed spaceship, collect space weapons and fight aliens with the goal of overthrowing a mad tyrant, a secret society of tech-sorcerers, and a crazed AI. Very much a Thundarr the Barbarian style adventure in the footsteps of the famous module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.
16 Giantslayer Giants are invading! Fight them off! So far this adventure path looks like it’s treading some ground similar to modules G1-3 Against the Giants.

So am I saying that Paizo's Pathfinder team is just doing a bunch of rip-offs? Not at all. Paizo's staffers know their audience. They know how to schedule releases, they have a good idea of what people want, and they're bringing their own touch to classic adventure ideas, while occasionally throwing their own curve balls. Keep in mind, too, that the typical old-school D&D adventure module is 32 or 64 pages, while an adventure path boasts a series of 6 books at 96 pages each, including the adventure, some short fiction, and some supplementary monsters and new rules. So Paizo's doing what any good creative endeavor does when making sequels: They're taking the familiar elements that people learned to love, putting a new polish on them, and giving them much more lavish treatment.

Since Paizo manages two adventure paths every year, this also gives players an "either-or" choice. If you just want to play in one game (or run one game), you can pick either adventure path for the year and run it. Since the average campaign goes on for a year, you'll have two more choices by the time the end of your campaign rolls around. Thus, you can pick the one that you like.

I daresay that this is an example of something incredibly rare in the game industry: a marketing division that works with the creative division and actually gets what the audience wants. Pathfinder's success rests on people who felt like the newer editions of D&D left them behind; they liked what they were playing, and they wanted to keep playing more of it. The adventure paths that Paizo is publishing recognize that these are people who will spend their dollars on adventure gaming that lets them reprise the cool stories from their game roots with a game system with which they've become familiar over the last fifteen years.

Thus far, D&D's new 5th edition looks like a good game, but a good game will only last if you have something to sell to people. Wizards of the Coast needs to step up its commitment to publication -- either on their own or through their licensed partners -- or Paizo is going to continue to eat their lunch.

Running Pathfinder: Kingmaker -- Entry 1: The Not-So-King-ish Maker

For the Pathfinder role-playing game, the Adventure Path (series) Kingmaker is famed as a semi-sandbox collection of stories that start with exploration of monster-haunted wilds and move into settling the countryside, domain management, and the establishment of a new kingdom under the stewardship of the players. Veteran adventure gamers will, of course, recognize this as an old conceit: In early Dungeons & Dragons games, experienced adventurers eventually settled down, gained minor titles, and built castles, temples, wizard towers and thieves' guilds. This system was even heavily codified in the D&D Companion Set, part of the series of boxed versions of the game that were made specifically easy to learn but with a lot of long-term campaigning.

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Running Dark Sun: Merchant-Adventurers

In the original incarnation of the DARK SUN game, the supplement Dune Trader detailed the independent traders who ventured from city-state to city-state, hawking their wares and sometimes engaging in shady dealings. Players could take on the Trader class and deal with the problems of trying to move caravans of goods, bribing templars, buying low and selling high, running a business, and defending against thieves and scoundrels. Athas.org's 3rd edition version of DARK SUN didn't explicitly deal with traders, but 4e included the trader as an archetype, continuing the trend.

Now, some players didn't like the trader class. This was a character that didn't fight well (using the thief's combat ability and often without armor), had limited skills (like a thief but not as competent), and had no magical or psionic power. The trader's main claim to fame was having access to more money than most characters, but not so much that it really mattered after a level or two. So why would you ever play one?Read more...Collapse )

Running Dark Sun: Dark Secrets for Dark Hearts

The original DARK SUN boxed set includes a small section of rules regarding the shift in alignment of characters suffering from extreme thirst. In short, if your character's dying of dehydration, morals and scruples slip away, and the character becomes overwhelmed with the need to acquire water to slake that burning thirst, no matter the cost!

Of course, many players dislike the sense of losing control over their characters. I'm the one playing this character, why are my actions being dictated by circumstances beyond my control? If I decide that my character is a heroic martyr and would give up his or her last sip of water, who's to tell me otherwise?

The reason for this set of rules isn't just to take away control from players or simply to underscore the brutal realities of the desert world of Athas (though that latter is certainly part of the equation). This rule exists to create terrible situations in which characters do awful things to their allies so that they can regret it later!

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Running Dark Sun: The Order

In the DARK SUN campaign setting, spellcasters face specific threats and challenges in tandem with the powers that they wield. Preservers and defilers are both pariahs and social outcasts; defilers have special difficulty concealing their magic, while preservers are specifically hunted and killed by the sorcerer-kings (not to mention angry mobs who don't understand the distinction between the two styles of arcane magic). Clerics are constantly pushed to promote the agendas of their elemental patrons, while druids will find themselves fighting against the encroachment of city-dwellers and resource exploiters, not to mention against mages who might defile the druid's guarded lands. Psionicists, by contrast, are largely accepted in society; nobles send their children to psionic schools, psionic mercenaries work for merchant houses as guards and information-gatherers, and slave tribes rely on both wild talents and trained psionic abilities for defense. Psionic powers don't have the stigma attached to wizardry, nor do they have repressive pall of the templarate or the revolutionary cast often attributed to elemental clerics. Psychic powers are, for the most part, free of any prejudices. This means that playing a psionic character is an attractive path for players avoiding the difficulties that spellcasters face.
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Running Dark Sun: Memorable Magic Items

Magical treasures are a mainstay of Dungeons & Dragons games. After all, they're the means to acquire special bonuses and powers that your character might otherwise never have -- and for players interested in building their character stories, every magic item is a piece of the character's history, a reminder of past adventures and a glance backward into the world itself (after all, someone had to make that magic item).

In DARK SUN, magical items sit on an awkward position of the reward hierarchy. Characters typically pursue metal weapons first, then hope to improve to enchanted metal weapons, but this isn't a sure thing. A 5th-level fighter with a +1 obsidian broadsword is still pretty fearsome, as the magical bonus on the weapon helps to ameliorate the drawbacks of obsidian. Essentially, for low- to mid-level DARK SUN characters, an enchanted nonmetal weapon might have parity with a mundane metal weapon. For nonweapons, though, the utility of magical items stays the same, or is even better. When you're stuck using bone-studded leather armor, a +1 ring of protection is a pretty big deal!

To match the setting's emphasis on damaged, second-hand, and worn-out gear, magic items in DARK SUN should have some kind of story or heritage that fleshes out their individual histories. This is good practice for magic items in any Dungeons & Dragons game, but in DARK SUN it's particularly useful to underscore the ancient history of the world. Here's an example from the oft-overlooked DARK SUN game, Shattered Lands:

Obsidian Bloodwrath: "This looks like a ritual sacrifice item of the templars of Tectuktitlay. Its blade is magically sharpened to better pierce the hearts of the dragon king's victims."

This is just a +1 obsidian longsword, but this nice little description explains where it came from (some templar made it in Draj for ritual sacrifices) and this gives it a bit of history. How did it get out of the hands of the templarate? Will they recognize it if they see a character carrying it? Built-in story development!

Since magical weapons in DARK SUN may well be made of obsidian, bone, or wood, you might extend this principle to other items as well. You could give the players a +1 ring of protection that is made from twisted knots of agafari wood, but it loses its enchantment for a day if the character is struck by a metal weapon. (Avoid the temptation to specify that its +1 bonus doesn't work against metal weapon attacks -- these kinds of situational modifiers that have to be applied on the fly to individual attacks are hard to remember.) Or, give a +1 cloak of resistance that's made from dyed erdlu feathers with solar patterns on it, enchanted by a para-elemental Sun cleric, but it only grants its bonus in daylight. A suit of +1 studded leather armor might be made with bulky pieces of hide that also give it extra weight or grant the wearer a penalty of some sort on various Strength and Dexterity checks (the implementation of such a penalty being dependent upon your edition of the rules). This way, you can give magic items with edge-case bonuses and drawbacks, just like magic weapons.

As noted with the cloak mentioned previously, the style of an item can also reflect the nature of its enchanter. A neutral defiler might make a wand of magic missiles out of simple teak, but an evil defiler might make such a wand out of a thigh bone wrapped with a rough leather grip and inscribed with tiny dart-like sigils. A set of boots of striding and springing enchanted by a druid could be in a sandy dun color that blends well with the desert, while ones made by an elemental priest of Air might be of white leather with blue trim.

Naturally, as the characters reach higher levels, they'll acquire or enchant weapons and items with better qualities, perhaps taking that extraordinary metal sword from an earlier age and placing their own spells upon it to make it even more powerful. As a rule of thumb, the bonuses for items should hover around a +1 bonus starting at 4th level, and going up by another +1 for every four levels thereafter (+2 at 8th, +3 at 12th, +4 at 16th, +5 at 20th). This might vary depending upon your edition -- in 3e or 4e, weapons with special properties tend to be more common instead of higher bonuses, and they may show up somewhat earlier -- but this general guideline indicates that your DARK SUN characters will have their low-quality obsidian or bone weapons when they start, get slightly better weapons at 4th or 5th level, then around 8th they will start to see enchanted metal weapons or powerfully-charmed weapons of inferior materials. You can and should, of course, break this progression if you feel that the players have earned an exceptional magic item, or if you want to saddle them with something beyond their level of ability and make them a target because of it. (Going the other direction is painful because there's already so much stacked against DARK SUN characters, but it might make sense in a city-heavy game of gladiators and thieves who don't need special magic weapons to fight their humanoid adversaries.)

Why go to all of this trouble? Because when your magic items have these extra bits of description, this descriptiveness helps to set them "in the world." A +1 sword is more than just a sword with a bonus: it is an object with a history, that was made by someone, went through various hands, and eventually wended its way to the players. The item not only has a past, but it reinforces that it came from somewhere, and that the world itself has myriad events and people in it that the players' characters may not know or have met. This provides versimilitude both to the item and to your world.

This bit of advice wouldn't be complete with a few tables to help inspire you with ideas for your own special magical items!

Age (1d6)
1. Ancient -- This item is from an earlier age of Athas. It is possible that it has only survived to the current age due to its enchantments. If it is artistically embellished, the artwork may reflect creatures or settings that no longer exist.
2-3. Old -- This item is from the current age, but it was created decades ago -- maybe even a century or more. The creator, if human or humanoid, probably isn't alive any more. The item probably doesn't have a reputation, unless it was used for a notorious deed in some place (a knife used for a series of killings in a city-state, a wand carried by a defiler who murdered several druids and terrorized a specific feature of the landscape, etc.).
4-5. Recent -- This item was created in the last few years, possibly by a local enchanter, or maybe it made its way to the area after its creator was robbed, killed, or sold the item. People who knew the creator might recognize the item; it could have a local reputation in some areas.
6. New -- This item was created very recently. The creator is probably only one or two steps removed from its falling into the hands of the player characters. It probably doesn't have a reputation yet, but if its creator was well-known the workmanship might be familiar to people who knew the creator.

Artistic Decor (1d6)
The nature of an item's artistic decor will reflect the preferences of its creator. A druid is likely to use pictures of natural spaces, animals, and natural phenomenon, a cleric will depict his or her patron element, a preserver might work arcane shapes into pictures of plant life, and a defiler might use symbols relating to death and terror.

  1. None -- The item is purely functional.

  2. Subtle -- The item has some sort of artwork built into it, but it is not apparent without close inspection (a pattern in the grain of wood or the fibers of cloth, a small number of colored spots that are out of place, a fresco that is so finely hewn that it can be felt but not seen).

  3. Minimal -- Item has a single rune, picture, or piece of embellishment.

  4. Decorated -- The item was made with several artistic choices, influencing its choice of material and also its form. The item is made of materials that may have some intrinsic value, specifically carved/woven/dyed/tanned/shaped to have a pleasing aesthetic, such as a wand with a smooth finish and tapered point that has an embedded ring of obsidian just under the tip, or a set of sandals with colored tassels on the ties and buttressed with polished pieces of petrified wood along the front to protect the toes.

  5. Whimsical -- The item is decorated with patterns and symbols that might be representative of an idea, but are not necessarily a specific shape of a creature or other object (tiny stars all over its surface, a stylized flame picture, a bolt of lightning with lines radiating from the point of impact, a picture of a cloud).

  6. Symbolic -- The item may be made to resemble a specific other object or creature (a wand that is shaped like a slender cactus, or a ring shaped with carved feet to look like a mekillot), or a natural phenomenon (a shirt with patterns in the dye-work to make it look like rain against a dark sky, a flask twisted into the shape of a sandstorm dust devil).

Quirks (1d20)
Only roll quirks for items that you want to be limited in some fashion. In general, you can think of a quirky item as one that has a bonus equivalent to an item one "plus" lower -- a +2 sword that only functions in daylight is roughly similar to a +1 sword in terms of its value, unless your game happens to always or never take place in daylight.

  1. Item only works for a specific period of time (day, night, during the waxing of one of the moons, half of the months of the year, etc.)

  2. Item is powerless when exposed to a specific element (e.g. if wielder is next to a fire at least the size of a bonfire, item loses its magical bonuses)

  3. Item has powers only after exposed to a specific element for an hour (e.g. wielder must immerse the item in water for an hour in order for its power to become active, item must be left unattended in the sun for an hour, etc.); lasts for one day

  4. Item only functions for characters of a specific race (thri-kreen, mul, etc.)

  5. Item's power does not work on one class of enemies (beasts, elementals, undead, etc.) or one specific social group (templars of Nibenay, clerics of Fire, etc.)

  6. Item works for a given owner for one week, then works only for a different owner for a week. Must be traded to resume functioning. If traded back, remains inert until the current owner's week expires.

  7. Item's power only activates when wielder is at 1/2 maximum hit points or less.

  8. Item's power only activates when wielder is at more than 1/2 maximum hit points.

  9. Item "turns on" by activating it with 5% of the user's psionic power points (minimum 1). Lasts for 24 hours. If item is dropped or given away, it becomes inert again.

  10. Item "turns on" by activating it with the user's blood -- 5% of the user's hit points (minimum 1). Lasts for 24 hours. If item is dropped or given away, it becomes inert again.

  11. Item radiates magic with triple normal strength and radius.

  12. Using item's power causes defiling as if casting a spell of level equal to item's bonus (e.g. +1 sword causes defiling as if casting a 1st-level spell every time it hits).

  13. Using item's power causes water sources to dry up. Calculate range as if defiling and destroying plants, as entry 11. above, but this causes water sources to completely dry up and become empty instead of destroying plant life. This still causes pain in living creatures (due to dessication).

  14. Item is fragile and subject to breakage like a normal item of its type, not as an enchanted item.

  15. Item has immediately recognizable characteristic or legendary history and many people will recognize it instantly (especially other magicians).

  16. Item causes a penalty on certain skill checks. Choose two skills. Item causes a penalty on those skill checks equal to its bonus (2nd/3rd/4th edition) or grants disadvantage on those skills (5th edition) as long as it is carried or worn.

  17. Item irritates psionic creatures nearby. Unintelligent psionic creatures seek out and attack the wielder to try to break the item. Range is dependent on item power (a good rule of thumb is, if the item could be detected with detect magic, it can be sensed at that range by a psionic beast.)

  18. Using item's power angers elementals nearby. Determine range as entry 17., above, but with the added effect that clerics carrying the item cannot regain spells (as their elemental patrons will not respond to them). Could be used as a shackle for an imprisoned cleric...

  19. Item temporarily loses its powers if it is in area of defiling magic. Powers are suppressed for 1 round per level of the defiling spell.

  20. Using item's power within a city-state alerts sorcerer-king to its presence.

Have fun with your +2 bone sickle of the scrublands, a druid-created weapon that bears a carving of the scrub plains and mountains west of Tyr, made a hundred years ago by a druid who eventually died in his guarded lands, but not before passing it on to one of his students, who took it on her journeys into the world. Or your +1 cloak of tears, a +3 cloak of resistance that looks like a limp gray length of cloth with a silvery threaded lining around the neck and shoulders, which only functions while it is damp with water. And may your weapons never break!

Running Dark Sun: City Adventures

Last time, I wrote a bit about settlements in the wilderness of DARK SUN. I mentioned briefly the presence of the major city-states, so now's a great time to talk a little bit more about adventuring there!

Since the world of Athas is a devastated nightmare of diminished resources, survival is a difficult proposition. Naturally, this prompts people to band together anywhere that they have a decent chance of avoiding the monsters of the wastes. This, though, places people at the mercy of different kinds of monsters . . .

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